Study board surprised by level of concern

by Nancy McDermid

KAGAWONG—The Kagawong Park Centre was packed on Saturday August 6 during an Upper Great Lakes Study Board (UGLSB) presentation that was followed by a long question and answer session.

Organized by the Manitoulin Area Stewardship Council (MASC), the public meeting was one of a series the UGLSB is holding as part of its five-year study looking at future water levels in the upper Great Lakes and the options for regulating those levels. The purpose of the meeting was to provide background information, present preliminary findings and invite public comments. Members of the study board were surprised by response to the meeting; over 200 people filled the hall and the queue for questions grew longer and longer, extending the length of the meeting.

The morning began with a water blessing ceremony by Joseph Laford. “Today we honour the water,” the elder said. “Water in our tears, the gift of birth water, spring-water we use in our medicines and thunder water or rain water that fills the lakes and rivers.” A prayer by Elizabeth Laford and water songs performed by the Sheshegwaning Ladies Hand Drum Group were also part of the ceremony.

Following the ceremony, the large group that had assembled moved into the Kagawong Park Centre for the meeting which began with the creation legend of the Great Lakes and Manitoulin Island told by “Debajehmut” a story teller from the Debajehmujig Theatre Group.

Dignitaries were recognized including Kagawong Mayor Austin Hunt, Algoma Manitoulin MPP Mike Brown and Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes.

Ms. Hughes congratulated the organizers of the event and thanked the audience for their participation. “This issue has an impact on each and every one of us,” she said.

Following a formal toast to Lake Huron, drunk from North Channel water, a letter written by Dr. E. Ostrom was read out by Lyle Dewar. Dr. Ostrom was the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her book ‘Analysis of Economic Governance,’ where she put forth the view that the best way to solve problems was to listen to the advice of local people. In her letter she expressed her distress about the reduction of water levels in Lake Huron.

The theme was echoed during the question and answer session by a number of participants and was addressed by Ted Yuzyk,Canadian Co-Chair of the Study Board in his presentation and in his responses to the questions posed by members of the audience although his answers were not always satisfactory to all who were present.

The highlights of the five-year study explains that, “in the entire upper lakes basin, water levels are currently influenced through a regulation plan at the St. Mary’s River control structures at Sault Ste. Marie, where Lake Superior outflows have been regulated since 1914. Over long periods of time, a regulation plan can generally affect the balance between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan-Huron (considered as one lake, since they are at the same water level.) However, the ability to influence high and low water levels through regulation is severely limited by the natural variation in climate condition, the risks that climate change could introduce more extreme conditions in the future, and the physical geography of the lakes and connecting channels. Moreover, the natural shifting of the earth’s crust has serious implications for both water regulation and coastal interests. There is a high degree of uncertainty about how climate change will affect future water levels over the next several decades.”

“In response, the study has undertaken the most comprehensive and balanced analysis ever made of climate change in the Great Lakes basin. The study concludes that future water levels are likely to remain within a relatively small range around their long-term averages. While lower water levels in the future are likely, water users around the lakes have to be prepared for episodes of higher levels too. Any new regulation plan, therefore, must be robust-effective and flexible enough to perform well in an uncertain future.”

“A new regulation plan must also recognize and balance the needs of the key economic and environmental interests in the upper Great Lakes. Some of these interests, such as recreational boating and ecosystems, were not specifically listed in the original 1909 treaty between Canada and the US that established a co-management approach to boundary waters. The study’s ‘shared vision planning exercise’ has allowed representatives of these key interests to provide information regarding their needs and preferences related to Great Lakes water management.”

“Given the limited ability to regulate the lakes, the study has also looked at the feasibility of building new control structures either to restore water levels on Lake Michigan-Huron to conditions that existed prior to channel modifications or to regulate the entire Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system through adaptive management measures, such as strengthened monitoring and information sharing, that can help water managers and property owners know what to expect in terms of changing water levels so they can take action to reduce risks. In the fall, the study’s management board will complete its evaluation of the regulation plan options, taking into account public input. The study’s final report will be submitted to the International Joint Commission (IJC) by March 2012. The IJC will conduct public hearings after the study is completed and put forward a new regulation plan to the governments of Canada and the US.”

The report acknowledges that there are “limits to the ability to influence high or low water levels in the Great Lakes through a regulation plan.” Major factors that affect the water supply to the lakes such as precipitation, evaporation and runoff vary naturally over time and cannot be controlled. Climate change is cited as raising the risk of even more extreme conditions in the decade ahead. “In addition, the St. Mary’s River is small compared to the huge surface area and great depth of Lake Superior and has a limited capacity to move the water downstream. At the same time, apparent water levels are affected by glacial isostatic adjustment, the gradual and uneven tilting of the land as the earth’s crust adjusts and rebounds from the enormous weight of ice from the last period of continental glaciation more than 10,000 years ago,” the report states. Mr. Yuzyk pointed out that the Canadian side of the lakes is anticipated to rebound 27 cm in the next century while the US side will correspondingly lose altitude.

“We created 13 potential future climate scenarios with more than 50 variations and we are now down to a dozen plans,” Mr. Yuzyk told the audience.

In regards to restoration and multi-lake regulation, the study board has narrowed it down to 4 or 5 plans but Mr. Yuzyk cautioned that the final plan “will not be much different from the existing plan because the existing plan is a very good plan.”

He acknowledged that there is a dilemma in finding answers because “whatever we do in the system has a trade-off. What is good for someone is not good for another.”

For example he told the audience that “what is good for the Upper Great Lakes has negative consequences for the Lake St. Clair wetlands.”

As the study board has travelled around to their 12 public meetings from Wisconsin to Sarnia to the Sault, they have received a greater amount of feedback from citizens in each locale than they had expected, indicating that the interest in the regulation of the water levels in the Great Lakes is growing.

For further information on the study, to review the report or to provide comments on the preliminary findings, visit the study website at www.iugls.org.