It will take all of our efforts to restore the Great Lakes

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an open letter to the Globe and Mail, and has been reprinted here at the author’s request.

Response to IJC chair’s opinion piece in the Globe and Mail

The International Joint Commission, after nearly a decade of study, issued a recommendation this past April “that the governments of Canada and the United States investigate structural options to restore water levels in Lake Michigan-Huron.” Distinguished US Chair, Lana Pollack, issued a dissent from the Commission’s decision, and she recently provided an explanation, published in the Globe and Mail on June 10: “Raise the Great Lakes? If only it were so simple.”

Given her distinguished pubic service career, position as US chair of the International Joint Commission, and knowledge of the issue, it’s hard to argue with Lana Pollack about water. She has, however, got it wrong about repairing the St. Clair.

Ms. Pollack freely admits that dredging and erosion in the St. Clair River has contributed to a significant lowering of the water level of Lakes Michigan and Huron (including Georgian Bay, Green Bay, The Straits of Mackinac, and the North Channel-all one body of water). The IJC website gives 16 inches as the amount of the drop. Other estimates range from 18 inches to two feet.

According to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab (GLERL) Lakes Huron and Michigan have been far more affected by low water than downstream Lake Erie or Lake Ontario. Huron/Michigan’s average for 2012 was 20 inches below it’s historical (or long-term) average. Lake Erie was one third of an inch below its long-term average, and Lake Ontario was 2.4 inches below its long-term average.

While climate is clearly the major determiner of Great Lakes water levels, this huge difference can at least partially to attributed to St. Clair River dredging and erosion. A big notch cut in the side of a bathtub will keep the level at or below that notch, even with the faucet pouring in all that it can.

Ms. Pollack states that “the decline caused by channel alterations only exacerbates the key driver of water level changes: climate.” This has it backwards. Climate change is a threat to all the Lakes, but Huron/Michigan are facing it from a disadvantaged position, handicapped by direct human alteration.

Ms. Pollack also says that “a structure in the St. Clair River would have to account for the environmental effects on wildlife habitat,” as well as effects on downstream bodies of water. This is for certain, and no one would disagree.

What the statement skips over, however, is that Lakes Michigan/Huron are natural areas too, which for nearly 150 years have been subject to abuse, including the unnatural act of St. Clair River dredging. Repairing the damage done in the St. Clair would simply be returning the Lakes to something more like their natural state. The IJC’s Study Board reports that this can be done without long-term negative effects downstream.

Ms. Pollack concludes her argument with the suggestion that there is little point in repairing the St. Clair River because, given climate change, it may not solve the problem. This is like saying that there is no point in treating victims injured in an auto accident because we’re all going to die anyway.

If Lakes Michigan and Huron are going to have a fighting chance in the struggle to adapt to climate change they need to be brought back as close as possible to what they were before human intervention. This will require the best science and the best engineering, applied with the utmost integrity, across the Great Lakes basin. This needs to be done quickly, before the environmental and economic costs become catastrophic.

And while it is being done, both Canadians and Americans must begin working to address the other causes of disappearing fresh water—the Chicago diversion, the growing demand for Lake Michigan water by suburbs in northern Illinois and southeast Wisconsin, energy production, agriculture, water mining, the continued burning of fossil fuels, and the overall lack of conservation.

Jim Nies
Kagawong and Wisconsin