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0Great Lakes to get relief from low water levels: Porter

The International Joint Commission has recommended restoring 13 to 25 centimetres of water to Lakes Huron and Michigan, likely through flexible structures in the St. Clair River, after doing an environmental assessment and cost-benefit analysis.


SOURCE: Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation

The Low Down

Water levels on Lake Huron appear to be approaching the record lows that we experienced back in 1964. The record lows at that time were 175.58 metres above sea level. Currently (October 2012) were sitting at about 175.8 m. The combination of last year’s warm winter, dry spring and summer, and the fact that the lake typically lowers between July and February each year, suggests we may reach that 1964 record by the end of the year.

The last decade has been marked with below average levels, so it’s no wonder this droughty 2012 looks to be pushing levels below the 1964 mark. The question commonly asked is “Could this be related to climate change?” Some of the early data suggest that it is. It takes time to accumulate enough information to make a scientific conclusion. When looking at climate trends, it takes an extended period of years and data to see what’s trending.

Looking back at historic levels, recorded reliably since 1918, the trend has seen fluctuations between highs and lows with no predictable cycle or pattern.

The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in the US has developed a great online, interactive water levels graph that illustrates the pattern of historical lake levels (for all the Great Lakes) that can be adjusted by the user to focus on a single lake, has a sliding scale to go back as far as 1861, and can project 3 or 6 month forecasts.

There is a lot of rhetoric and hyperbole about current low lake levels, and calls to dam up Lake Huron at Sarnia to bring levels back up to whatever level makes most people happy (it’s a sliding scale). I remember back to the all-time record high levels back in 1985-86. Back then there were calls to ‘fix’ the high levels and bring them down. I remember a retired engineer who was convinced that Ontario Hydro was doing it (for hydroelectric generation purposes) and that they had plugged the lake and should be made to unplug it!

Part of it is the unknown. In the 1980s, levels kept getting higher, and we had just had a full decade in the 1970s when levels were above average and there seemed to be little sign of ‘relief.’ Continued highs into the 1980s is when things got nerve wracking for many cottagers as levels crept up to record highs. Relief did come for a brief time, then high levels returned by 1997.

Low lake levels is a new experience for many. People who became coastal residents from the 1970s to the end of the 1990s experienced above average lake levels over that 30 year period. Above average levels would have been perceived as normal. With that backdrop, the current lows would have come as quite a shock.

People with a longer frame of reference will have gone through highs and lows. Extended lows like we’re experiencing currently goes back to the 1930s. Most of that decade was similar to our last decade.

People don’t like extreme conditions, whether it’s high lake or low. But I wonder what would have happened if in the 1980s we reacted to those extreme conditions and decided to engineer the removal of water from the lake to get to a ‘desired’ level (and that would be tricky because so many users have different perceptions of what is a desirable level). Had we done that, our current lows would be that much lower. During the extreme low levels of 1964, what if we had dammed the lake then to bring levels up? By the time the 1980s came around, coastal erosion and property loss would have been that much greater.

There are many opinions about what should be done to deal with the current low levels. But as history shows, nature has the final say. And perhaps that is as it should be.


Federation of Ontario Cottagers' Association Jerry Strickland Award Winner for 2009 Point Clark Beach Association. This award is presented annually by FOCA to recognize Associations for their ongoing commitment to community betterment and their local environment.

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The Great Lakes disappearing act

As all five shrink at an alarming pace, some people have begun to fear global warming is the culprit


From Monday September 24th Globe and Mail

September 24, 2007 at 3:02 AM EDT

The Great Lakes, so named because of their immense size and prodigious water content, aren't as great as they used to be.

Government forecasters are projecting that Lake Superior, the largest of the five, will fall to its lowest level for September since modern recordkeeping began nearly a century ago. The amount flowing out of the lake at its outlet, the St. Mary's River, has plunged too, and would have to rise by a staggering 50 per cent to reach the average of the past century.

Levels on Lakes Michigan and Huron are also sagging, Ontario is down, as is Erie – although the latter, the smallest by volume, has been the least affected.

What's going on? While there is no scientific certainty about what's ailing the Great Lakes – which together form the world's largest interconnected body of fresh water – some fear global warming is at work, causing them to shrink.

For Michigan and Huron, there is an added concern: Human meddling may have made them spring what amounts to a giant leak. Environmentalists contend that decades-ago dredging near Sarnia is causing them to lose an enormous amount of water – estimated at about an extra 10 billion litres a day, or enough to fill 4,000 Olympic-size pools.

The falling water levels aren't news to Gary Vent, whose home overlooks Georgian Bay, an arm of Lake Huron, near Waubaushene, Ont. He can see the effects: The shoreline that used to be 50 metres from his house is now more than 150 metres. Newly emerging land from the drying lakebed means that, where he docked his boat just six years ago, he now plays golf.

"You can hit a solid seven iron," he says. "I've got a golf course now instead of a place to park my boat."

Water levels on the Great Lakes go through seasonal fluctuations driven by the flow and ebb of the spring snow melt. They also experience lengthy – perhaps as long as 30 years – alternating cycles of high and low readings that occur for unknown reasons and can cause levels to vary by a metre or even more over the years.

The lakes contain about one-fifth of all the fresh water on the planet. Although a drop of a metre may not seem like much compared to what they contain, about 99 per cent of the lake water is considered a legacy of the last ice age and is basically non-renewable.

Only about 1 per cent is replenished each year through precipitation, and has to offset what flows out of the lakes through the St. Lawrence River into the Atlantic Ocean. And while the lakes are big, they're not limitless. Except for Superior, their average depth is less than 100 metres (compared to oceans that plunge more than 3,000 metres.)

The lakes are now in the midst of one of their periodic down cycles. But this one seems much more extreme than usual, lasting for nearly a decade – prompting questions about global warming.

Computer model projections generally show that the lakes will shrink as climate changes cause air temperatures around them to rise. Not only will the lakes themselves become warmer, leading them to lose more water to evaporation, but the land is likely to become drier, reducing the supply of groundwater to streams that feed the lakes.

At this point, global warming is speculation, but Mary Muter thinks she has another explanation for why things are worse this time, at least for Lakes Michigan and Huron, which are joined at their northern tips and consequently have the same water level.

Ms. Muter, head of the environment committee for the Georgian Bay Association, is advancing a controversial theory that the two lakes are inadvertently being drained because of the effects of dredging on the St. Clair River in the early 1960s.

She believes dredging has made the river bed more susceptible to erosion, which over time has deepened it, and caused more water to flow into Lake Erie. "The drain hole is getting bigger," she says.

In 2005, the group commissioned a study that estimated the erosion had caused an extra daily outflow of about 3.2 billion litres. An update issued last month, using more recent estimates on lake levels, upped the figure to 10 billion litres, leading to concerns that the ecological integrity of the lakes was being damaged. Since 1970, the extra drainage has lowered the levels of the lakes by an estimated 60 centimetres, the group says.

The International Joint Commission, the organization that oversees the lakes for the Canadian and U.S. governments, has announced that it will study water levels on Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, but it isn't expected to report its findings on the giant leak for another three years.

Ms. Muter says the problem could easily be fixed by piling large boulders into vulnerable parts of the riverbed to shore it up, something she says should be done right away, given that most of the water draining away is a non-renewable resource.

"I consider it bordering on immoral to not address this," she says. "How much longer are we going to wait to do the right thing?"

Environment Canada wants to see what the IJC concludes before considering mitigation measures. "We'll be looking to see what they find out in their study to see if [riverbed erosion] is a primary factor or whether it's a secondary factor or no factor in the change in levels that's occurring," says Ralph Moulton, a senior engineer at Environment Canada.

Lake Superior is also undergoing travails. It's experienced below-average water levels for nearly 10 years, the longest period of below-average readings on record. Mr. Moulton says the lake is "almost certainly" going to set a new record for the lowest September, eclipsing the previous low-water mark set in 1926, probably by a few centimetres.

Lake Superior levels are being driven down in part by a lack of rain in the area it drains. Last year, precipitation was at its lowest since the mid-1920s.

But another worrisome development is that Superior has been getting warmer, a reflection of higher air temperatures around the lake. According to a study by University of Minnesota researchers released this year, summer water temperatures rose about 2.5 degrees from 1979 to 2006.

There is no mistaking the warming – the lake has less ice cover in winter. And with Superior not freezing over as much, more of its water is being lost to evaporation.

Meanwhile, Lake Ontario is about a fifth of a metre below its average level, and Lake Erie is down by a little more than a tenth of a metre.

Mr. Moulton says Environment Canada modelling indicates that under all the scenarios used, global warming will cause water levels to drop, possibly by as much as 1.2 metres by 2050, although he also says these simulations show precipitation will rise, which hasn't occurred.

Whether global warming is beginning to dry out the lakes, he says, "is the $64,000 question."


G.B.A. activity to protect Georgian Bay water levels

  • Note :IJC's Lake Superior Board of Control meeting Wednesday May 24th 2006 in Parry Sound posted on IJC website   Details
  • Baird Report funded by GBA Foundation confirms GBA's water levels committee findings ; ongoing erosion and shoreline alterations at outflow of Lake Huron into St. Clair River is increasing conveyance capacity and is lowering Lakes Michigan
    and Huron.
  • The International Joint Commission has previously stated changes for Seaway navigation lowered Michigan-Huron levels by 40 cm; Baird determined it's closer to 80 cm.
  • Since the last Seaway dredging in 1970, erosion in the St. Clair River has lowered Michigan-Huron levels by approximately 30 cm.; by comparison, the Chicago diversion has lowered Michigan-Huron levels by 6.4 centimeters since 1970.
  • The ongoing erosion is resulting in a daily diversion of 845 million gallons.
  • The full report was paid for by GBA Foundation and is available Here .......................................................................... Large File - 10Mbytes
  • GBA presented these findings to the IJC, Environment Canada, shippers and agencies on both sides of the border. The IJC said this level of work was unheard of by such a small non-governmental group.
  • The IJC announced in May that as a result of the Baird findings, it is revising its Upper Great Lakes Plan of Study to investigate the Michigan-Huron outflow and determine the best mitigation methods. The draft document will be available in early August and there will be a public meeting.
  • The Baird findings should change forever how government agencies monitor Michigan-Huron water levels. ·

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