Island citizens demand action on low water

by Tom Sasvari

KAGAWONG—Members of the International Upper Great Lakes Study (IUGLS) group got the strong message from the over 200 people in attendance at a meeting last Saturday in Kagawong that the organization should be part of a process that will take the necessary steps to address concerns with decreasing water levels.

“I would like to know why this committee, along with the International Joint Commission is still neglecting to take actions to manage water levels, instead of allowing for decreasing levels which in turn erodes our ecosystem and has serious economic affects, especially in these troubled (economic) times?” asked Bob Florean, a former employee of the Ministry of Natural Resources and former co-ordinator of the Manitoulin Area Stewardship Council.

“To lose any of our water resources is serious. How then does the IJC and the study board have a do-nothing attitude to restore Lake Huron levels and our water ecosystems?” asked Mr. Florean. He explained a recent document released showed that restoring the Great Lakes would cost $26 million in addition to $50 billion plus for the Great Lakes Basin. As well U.S. President Barack Obama and his government committed $2.4 billion toward positive changes in water quality and levels. He pointed out the economy of coastal communities on Eastern Georgian Bay and Manitoulin are tied to the health of Lake Huron. For instance, “recreational fishing efforts in Ontario and the Great Lakes, including Eastern Georgian Bay and Manitoulin, provide $500 million in direct benefits and spin-offs economically.”

“On your phrase ‘do-nothing’ the first part of our study looked at what was happening in the St. Clair River; a lot of the information we were able to gather was poor and not clear. We said in that original report to wait until the second report to look at regulatory changes,” said John Nevin, of the IUGLS. “We wanted to make sure, for instance, the climate information and other factors were in place before we made a recommendation to the IJC.”

“We as an island feel water is very important to the core of our communities,” said Joe Chapman, Mayor of the Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands (NEMI). “I think everyone in this room this morning is united on our concerns. We can all tell horror stories of how a lack of government regulations have adversely affected our lives. I find it hard to explain, for instance, to my two daughters how the grass on Low Island (Little Current’s beachfront) they can now walk on was once used as a swimming area.”

“You talk about a shared vision and balance, but everything so far takes in concerns from southern Ontario and the US,” said Mr. Chapman. “It certainly seems to me we are making all the sacrifices and they are getting all the benefits. Our frustration is with the IJC and the inaction of our governments. We are baring the brunt of all of this, the Chicago Diversion and other things that are causing a reduced level of water.”

“We in Northern Ontario are not getting any consideration on our concerns about water levels,” stated Mr. Chapman. “We are the smallest community this study board is visiting on your public meeting tour and we have the largest turnout of members of the public which should speak volumes. Please do not ignore us again.”

Helen Griffith (of Michigan) and her husband have visited the island for the past 25 years. “I have one brief question,” Ms. Griffith said. “I’m concerned about bottled water in the Great Lakes being shipped elsewhere. There is a lot of water being taken out of our lakes, and I would hope someone is undertaking studies on this.”

Mr. Nevin, pointed out the study has shown many factors have contributed to actually more water coming into the Great Lakes basin than is going out. “Where the concern should be is water being taken from a particular watershed, where it affects particular small watersheds. This is an issue you would need to take up with your MP and MPP, not the (IJC) commission or our study board.”

Mary Muter, of the Sierra Club told the meeting after water levels in the Great Lakes began to drop in 1999 and continued to drop until the present, she became suspicious of what was going on. “When I visited the St. Clair River, I found wetlands drying up, hardened shore lands, sand sediments being taken out of the water so I began working with other agencies.”

Since then, Ms. Muter said, “what I ended up finding is that there has been a significant increase in the St. Clair water body depth. The bottom line is we are losing significant amounts of water diverted through this river.”

“We are asking the IJC and the IUGLS to stop the fear mongering, and work to bring all groups together to look at controlling the inflow and outflow from our lakes, and work on the best case scenario and solution,” said Ms. Muter.

Ted Yuzyk, Canadian co-chair of the IUGLS, told the meeting, “one of the main things we have found in the study is the tremendous deviation that has taken place in precipitation paths. Areas like Manitoba and Saskatchewan are now seeing more precipitation-water than they have seen in the past, and these type of storms would have normally headed this way.” He suggested this may be a continuing problem in the future.

Mike Wilton, of Spring Bay (a member of Algonquin Eco Watch), pointed out, “Georgian Bay and Manitoulin are entirely on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes. Yet the US (IUGLS) co-chair Eugene Stakhiv suggested that 10 of the significant thousands of wetlands here (the finest collection on the Great Lakes) be diked as an adaptive measure as lower and lower water levels threaten them, rather than addressing the main causes of the 13 years of low water in our area. This is typical of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, quote-Manipulate nature, unquote-solution.”

“Interestingly, Dr. Stakhiv is the American co-chair of the IUGLS study board and is a senior member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” said Mr. Wilton. “My second comment is towards the comment that importing water by companies that sell bottled water and the accumulative effect of this has been calculated and the amount from the Great Lakes is not significant. If you don’t consider all the negative effects man has caused, such as the six billion gallons being diverted from Lake St. Clair on a daily basis, which is three times more than the water diverted through Chicago because of dredging, irrigation of the river bottom and increasing human population then you don’t have the right calculations. This seems to be more significant than the group wants to recognize.”

“The study recognizes the concerns with water levels and that this is important to the eco-system and the economy as well, and we realize this more so since starting to hold these public meetings,” said Mr. Yuzyk. “We also realize when changes are made in one area of the water system it is a detriment to other places,” he said.

Dr. Maurianne Reade said, “I think the board was a little dismissive on the point of bottled water being imported as being ‘insignificant.’ This has an affect on water supplies as well as our resources.”

“With respect to concerns with bottled water and how much of an effect it has, people can change this on their own by not buying bottled water,” said Mr. Nevin.

Mike Brown, MPP for Algoma-Manitoulin told the meeting, “I hear a lot of input from residents and individuals on the issues of water levels and water quality, and we realize its importance.” He clarified one point, noting that “water can’t be exported from Ontario; this is against the law.”

“I have two impressions of what is being said today that are unfavourable,” said Jim Hart. “The first one is that through negligence of the IJC and our governments initiatives have been taken that allowed upstream residents to benefit, but the people downstream were affected. Then this committee was formed to look at putting in place recommendations that would be fair to everyone.”

“But in order to right the situation, the people downstream would be severely punished,” said Mr. Hart. “So when you look at balance and what is fair, we hear talk about parity, but it has always been the case that those benefiting the most are those on the St. Clair Shores and Chicago, so I’m not sure where the parity is going to come from.”

“My second comment is that we have a committee-study board here which has a lot of credentials, but is trying to do its best not to do anything with the St. Clair dredging and mining, something that could be done tomorrow,” said Mr. Hart. “I’m not clear what your interests are.”

“Our study is for five years, and we are an independent objective body,” responded Mr. Yuzyk. “We look at all the results, but I am just a small smidgen of a much larger group of 10. And, there are a lot of people who are part of the discussions.”

Joe Heywood said, “you people have spent a lot of time exaggerating all the bad things and are minimizing the benefits of doing something at the St. Clair River. Dredging is alive and well, and because of it we have lost between 20-40 percent of the wetlands. Eighty percent of the fish in our waters fish spawn in wetlands but this is gone, and for 12 years the IJC has had studies done, and have known the real problems and the solutions but have chosen to do nothing. You have to act now or there will irreversible damage if this isn’t the case already.”

John Leach, who has fished the past 50 years on the North Channel, implored the study group, “to just recommend fixing the problem. It seems to me when there is flooding in central US states, our water levels here are the same, but when there are droughts in the US the levels go down here.”

Shirley Moss added, “I would like to commend everyone for being here today. But I feel the wrong people are here. The researchers should be the politicians too. They are the ones making the final decisions. But I think as members of the public, we have relayed the message today that enough is enough and we want solutions to the problem with decreasing water levels.”