Georgian Bay loses water while International Joint Commission does nothing
|Georgian Bay Photo by Michelle Atkins, (c) the acorn centre|
Since my parents bought a scrap of land on a big island when I was a baby, I’ve squeezed every possible summer moment into Georgian Bay. To me, it is a magical place of two-toned frogs and bum-up mallards and the damp pages of a book on the dock and another dramatic boating mishap.
Neither of my parents is handy; I spent many weekends of my childhood like a castaway on a random rocky shoal in the middle of the Bay praying for a saviour after our propeller suffered another aneurism.
I always leave the Bay with a heavy heart. But this fall, it’s going to be extra heavy.
I’m not sure if I’ll be able to leave at all.
The past month, that same battered boat hit bottom 15 metres from the dock. I had to push it and pull it and heave all the groceries and fresh laundry and children up front and then push some more.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so frightening.
When I was a kid, I could dive off the end of that dock. This summer, the water there reached my knees.
We are on year 13 of lower-than-average water levels on Georgian Bay — a record for prolonged low water over the past century. The water has gone down 1.6 metres since its high point in 1997. Most of that is due to the Great Lakes natural cycle between wet and dry spells. But a healthy amount won’t ever come back.
Have you never been to Georgian Bay? You must go. A place of scrubbed granite islands and windswept pines, it’s only 1.5 hours north of the city by car at dawn. (Don’t try it during rush hour unless you’re an aggravation junky.) It’s a large lobe of Lake Huron, which is actually joined by the Straits of Mackinac to Lake Michigan. On a map, they look like two sides of a droopy Prussian mustache.
A few years ago the binational referee of water, the International Joint Commission, confirmed that Lake Huron-Michigan (and therefore Georgian Bay) lost 23 centimetres of water between 1963 to 2006.
The causes, the IJC’s study board concluded, were mostly climate change and the erosion of the St. Clair River, which drains water down toward Lake Erie. That erosion was caused by ice jams, shipwrecks and dredging to let big ships through.
Some 150 years ago, the St. Clair River was only 6 metres deep. Now, it’s 8.2 metres deep. Put a bigger drain in your bathtub and you’d expect to lose water quicker.
The equivalent of a plug — speed bumps at the bottom of the river — was supposed to be put down. But that never happened.
People on the Bay have been fighting for them, or something like them, for years now.
Most of us were hoping the IJC would finally order them.
But, it doesn’t look likely.
(Glacial isostatic adjustment also played a small role in the water loss, the report said. That’s essentially the very gradual reinflation of the Earth’s crust beneath Lake Huron after centuries of being squished under ice.)
I spent a couple days this week chipping though the IJC’s latest, 215-page report on the future of the upper Great Lakes, and it left me distressed, not just for the lake I love, but for all of our lakes.
Let me explain and save you the joyless task of reading the report.
First, scientists don’t really know what climate change will do to the Great Lakes, the report’s 200-odd experts conclude. They think it will cause more evaporation during warm winters, but also more precipitation. Still, they predict it will double the extremely low water spells to the point of “severe, long-lasting or permanent adverse impacts” in Lake Huron-Michigan.
I phoned Syed Moin, the former manager of the study, to ask what that meant. It means 10 droughts a century instead of the current five, he told me.
His experts looked into restoring 10 to 25 centimetres of water in Lake Huron-Michigan by putting different structures — from underwater sills to turbines — into the St. Clair River. Those structures would also mitigate the low water extremes caused by climate change. They’d cost anywhere from $30 million to $170 million. And while his study group was not asked to make a recommendation, it’s clear from the report they oppose the idea. Sturgeon spawning grounds would be disturbed in the St. Clair River, they point out. But mostly, residents on the American side of the border like their beaches. Even though the report says there is less than an 8 per cent chance of extreme high water levels, they don’t like that chance.
Plus, as Lake Huron’s land is reinflating, Lake Michigan’s is dipping.
“If we make the Georgian Bay side happy, the larger side on the United States side becomes unhappy,” Moin said. “It’s a no-win situation.”
In the end, the report recommends the commission do no further study into regulating all the Great Lakes to avoid extreme water levels in the future. It’s just too expensive, it says, and people won’t want to pay unless it benefits them.
We’ve long been warned that water will be the oil of the next century. And here we are: the water wars have begun.
I’m sad for Georgian Bay — for the frogs and the fish, for the marina owners, who already are facing bankruptcy. I’m sad for my children, who likely won’t grow up there.
But mostly, I’m sad that in the face of the world’s biggest threat — climate change — we can’t come together and work on a communal solution that will protect the weak.
As the victims of Hurricane Katrina learned, if we are in this alone, most of us sink.
The IJC has extended its deadline for comments on its report until Sept. 30. You can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a letter to 234 Laurier Ave. W., 22nd Floor, Ottawa, ON K1P 6K6.
One of the towns on the eastern shore of Georgian Bay is my birthplace, and I stand with Ms Porter in lament both for the tragedy that the "Bay" has become and for the powerlessness of those lamenting to arrest the falling water levels.
There are so many explanations for the drop in water levels, and such a whisper is the public outcry for "attention" to be paid.
It is as if, in this instance, "The Bay" is as Willy Loman in her silent, unheard and even evaporating "Attention must be paid!" (In Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman)
Willy was demanding that attention be paid to him, a lost soul, thrown under the bus of the corporate juggernaut which has passed him by.
Like Willy, the juggernaut of climate change, global warming and various American "interests" have combined to quite literally 'throw Georgian Bay under the bus' of public, political and legal remedy.
I also agree with Ms Porter that, if you have not experienced Georgian Bay, inhaled her breath, let her westerly wind blow through your hair (if you are still lucky enough to have some!), or your spirit, and let her sunrises and sunsets burn an indelible image on your consciousness, for later reflection, just as Wordsworth revisited the Lake District and the daffodils, and walked over and among its granite shores, you have not joined the millions whose lives have been enriched, ennobled and enhanced, even transformed, and whose pens, brushes, cameras and memories have been filled to overflowing with those images.
I learned to swim in her waters; I dived from her diving boards, scarring a shin after some miscreant rubbed bar soap into the mat on which I slipped, fell and gashed the leg, laying me up for two weeks.
I walked on her oil-stained beeches after the Imperial Oil tank sprank a tragic leak, draining thousands of gallons of crude onto her shores in the mid-fifties.
I picnicked in Menominee channel on the westerly side of Five Mile Bay with my parents in a borrowed boat, when my dad had the occasional afternoon "off" and mother had prepared a summer salad feast, eaten only after a relaxing, invigorating swim in her shallows as the sun set over the rocks and trees.
I learned to water-ski in her south channel, at Rose Point, around MacLaren Island, in the evenings of my undergraduate summers, pulled by another "Bay" afficionado whose generosity made it possible.
I have walked and skated on her frozen face, in mid-winter, when the winds cut our faces blowing through the 'gap' south of the harbour, carrying us and our outstretched arms along without having to move our legs. Winter 'wind-surfing' on skates predated the summer water-wind-surfers of today.
I have sun-bathed on Sloop Island where I wondered aloud whether I would 'burn out at forty' rather than 'rust out at eighty' in my naive freshman hubris.
I have sailed in my youth, up the north channel past Pointe au Baril, all the way to the Bustards, in a two-week jaunt as a summer student working for the then Department of Lands and Forests, in search of remote cottages, to measure their perimeters for land tax assessments. On one trip from main launch to outport islands, we heard that loud, piercing "ping" as another rocky shoal clipped the wing of the prop on our eighteen horse Johnson outboard "sheering the cotter-pin," as we skimmed along in the cedar-strip Giesler boat. We limped back to 'base' with paddles and waning patience, in humility and fatigue.
Those pancake islands, with their pine spines genuflecting to the eastern sunrise, in both reverence and humility for the west wind that has shaped their trunks and etched their lines on so many canvases and photos, have been to me, and millions of others, bookmarks in the chapters of our inner lives, proving beyond scepticism and doubt and cynicism that there truly is a God. No one else could have painted such a masterpiece!
This is when and where I encountered the face of God complete with the power and beauty of both elegant grace and brute strength.
The brutish force of the west wind pushed a lone boater into the rocks along the eastern shore of the Big Sound at 2.30 a.m. in an August rain squawl and in his frightened call for help, a memorable human meeting etched itself on both our lives.The Big Sound has been the scene of many battles between errant and naive sailors and her even bigger westerlies, most of them won by her relentless power and careless regard for her victims. Did the same God who painted those memorable sun-drenched postcards generate those unforgiving winds?
And to think, all these memories form the centrepiece in my heritage, and the heritage of thousands of other blessed creatures!
And also, now, to reflect on its entropy, its atrophy, its evaporation, its dwindling bounty and beauty, when human decisions, including actions, and reactions and more decisions, actions and reactions could reverse the demise!
The world will mourn the loss of Georgian Bay, and do nothing to reverse its steep decline in water levels, at its biologic peril, and the peril of its ecosystem, but more importantly, at its poetic and archetypal peril. Water, the symbol of life, the symbol of new life, for centuries, is no less such a symbol in the waters of the sixth Great Lake.
And, those of us who consider her our first love will not only mourn loudest and longest, but will also carry our passion to whatever board rooms, classrooms, offices and media outlets are available to tell our story, really "The Bay's" story to the world, if that will help to preserve our heritage!
Please join the fight to save Georgian Bay!