Stewardship Council applauds decision by International Joint Commission as first step to increasing Great Lakes levels

Tom Sasvari

The Recorder

MANITOULIN—A member of the water committee of the Manitoulin Area Stewardship Council calls a recent decision by the International Joint Commission (IJC) looking at options to raise water levels in the Great Lakes a good first step.

“It does sound promising,” stated Mike Wilton in an interview with the Recorder last week. “It’s a start at least, and hopefully we will see some progress.”

Mr. Wilton was referring to information contained in a newsletter written by David Sweetnam, executive director for Georgian Bay Forever (GBA). In his newsletter, which he titled “Water levels: some promising news,” he writes, “for almost a decade, Georgian Bay Forever has been the leading voice on the issue of water levels in Georgian Bay. It has been a long, difficult and even controversial campaign, but one that is vitally important to the aquatic ecology of our beloved body of water.”

“A new development this fall is an encouraging sign that progress is being made,” wrote Mr. Sweetnam. “In early October, the International Joint Commission, the body that deals with trans-boundary water issues between Canada and the United States, announced it wants a special study board to recommend options for raising lake levels.”

“It’s good news, but it’s also clear that we’re still years away from any potential solutions,” wrote Mr. Sweetnam. “Investigating remediation (for past problems) and mitigation (to prevent further problems), in the connecting waters between Lakes Michigan/Huron and Erie is something (GBF) has recommended for many years. Our mission is to protect the aquatic ecosystems of Georgian Bay. We can’t do that without the right levels of water.”

Mr. Sweetnam reported that late last year, the IJC’s Upper Great Lakes Study Board released a report on levels in the single body of water that makes up Lakes Huron, Michigan and Georgian Bay. It acknowledged that climate change and man-made actions like the 1963 dredging of the St. Clair River resulted in further erosion in the river bed that lead to lower water levels on the middle Great Lakes. But the report also said the unexpected loss of water (23 centimetres) wasn’t enough to warrant action at this time.

“Georgian Bay Forever was disappointed by this ‘do nothing’ recommendation,” said Mr. Sweetnam. “And we weren’t the only ones who felt that way,” he said, pointing out the IRC commissioners held a series of public meetings last March in Midland, Sabrina and Toronto, in conjunction with meetings in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.

“The IJC announcement means our voices were heard,” wrote Mr. Sweetnam. “The IJC is now asking the study board to examine the consequences of raising the average levels of the lakes under four different scenarios: 10 centimeters (four inches); 25 centimeters (10 inches); 40 centimeters (16 inches); and 50 centimeters (20 inches).” He explained the IJC also wants the study board to start looking at what type of structure would be needed to recapture the lost water.

All of this will be part of a second phase of the study board’s work that is looking at the outflow of Lake Superior and the impact of climate change on lake levels. That report isn’t due until early 2012.

Mr. Sweetnam said the GBF believes that a control board should be established to monitor and regulate the outflow of the middle Great Lakes, which would establish reliable data needed to devise sensible solutions, and that governments should consider the installation of flexible control measures at the outflow of Lake Huron that also take into consideration downstream management requirements.

“These types of structures could slow down the outflow during periods of low water when appropriate, but could be adjusted when water levels are within normal or high cycles,” wrote Mr. Sweetnam. “Within those two extremes there should be a natural variation in the lake levels to ensure that the wetlands and ecosystems can function properly.”

Mr. Sweetnam pointed out, “while most of us recognize a health ecosystem is dependent on adequate water levels, we also have to realize there are other Great Lakes stakeholders, especially those on the sandy shores of Huron and Michigan who are worried about the impact that higher water levels would have on their properties.”

“We need to work to build an understanding with these groups, not only on the positive impacts of a healthy ecosystem, but how avoiding extreme highs and lows is in the best interest of everyone,” continued Mr. Sweetnam. “There is still a lot of work to do to build this lake-wide consensus on water levels, but we are optimistic that it can be achieved through open dialogue. Georgian Bay Forever is committed to working to provide the IJC and governments on both sides of the border with the necessary scientific support needed to come up with sound, environmentally sensible solutions.”

The support for a Great Lakes Water Quantity Board is something the members of the Great Lakes United gave at its recent 2011 annual general meeting, said Mr. Wilton, who is also president of the Algonquin Eco-Watch group, (that has been a member of the GLU for the past 15 years).

“Two motions were passed at the annual meeting,” said Mr. Wilton. “Basically we are asking for one coordinated Great Lakes water Quantity Advisory Board to be formed to monitor and report lake levels to the government, IJC and the public, for water levels on all five Great Lakes. Right now there is a group that reports on the water levels for Lake Superior, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, but there hasn’t been the same for Lakes Michigan and Huron.”

“And the second motion focuses on a request that both the Canadian and US governments return the St. Clair River conveyance to the same levels prior to the 1958-1962 navigation dredging,” said Mr. Wilton. “There has been a lot of dredging done and more water taken through.”

In the latter motion, it is pointed out that with over 100 years of navigational dredging, shoreline alterations and sand and gravel riverbed mining, the St. Clair River conveyance capacity has been significantly increased resulting in lowering of upstream lake levels without compensation, and recently the International Upper Great Lakes Study discovered, post 1985, a 5.8 percent increase in conveyance capacity of the St. Clair River, which has been permanently lowered without compensating the levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron. This conveyance is resulting in a loss of water from Lakes Michigan and Huron that is equal to three times the Chicago diversion and, to date, is uncompensated.

The GLU wants the undertaking to be carried out in such a manner as to allow the levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron to fluctuate naturally again. They are calling on the governments to ensure that a full environmental impact study be carried out to determine the most appropriate methods to return the conveyance capacity to its state prior to the 1958-1962 navigation dredging, and this study should consider impacts, both short and long-term, on the outflow of Lake Huron and upstream and downstream impacts throughout the entire Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system, and completed over two years.

“These motions will carry on to both governments,” said Mr. Wilton.