Great Lakes to get relief from low water levels: Porter
The International Joint Commission has recommended restoring 13 to 25 centimetres of water to Lakes Huron and Michigan, likely through flexible structures in the St. Clair River, after doing an environmental assessment and cost-benefit analysis.
By Catherine Porter, Toronto Star, April 29, 2013
If you love Georgian Bay, as I do, I have good news for you.
We might be getting more water soon. Or, more aptly: we might stop losing as much water as we have been these past 14 years.
After years of cheerleading the “do-nothing” approach to the frightening drop in water levels on Lakes Huron and Michigan, the binational referee of water levels, the International Joint Commission, did a stunning about-face last Friday.
It instructed the Canadian and American governments to do something. In particular, research putting an adjustable plug in the St. Clair River, which drains water from Lakes Huron and Michigan down toward Lake Erie.
Let me take a step back for those readers who from misfortune or folly have not yet set bare foot on a hot granite rock of Georgian Bay. The bay is a large lobe of Lake Huron, which is actually joined to Lake Michigan by the Straits of Mackinac.
You can get there in 1.5 hours, if you drive fast out of Toronto, up Highway 400, preferably at dawn. When the wall of trees on your left opens up to a tableau of rocky islands, fainting red pines and blue water, you have arrived.
It is a place I go every summer to confide my city troubles to the ducks and snapping turtles.
It is paradise. It’s in trouble.
Lakes Huron and Michigan, and therefore Georgian Bay, hit a record low water level (175.57 metres) this past January. That’s the lowest the water has been since the 1860s. Plus, it came during a record slump in lake levels. We are in a 14-year period of low water.
Some context: As a kid, I could dive off the end of the dock at my family cottage. If I’d tried that last October, I’d be crippled. The water barely reached my knees.
Since its high point in 1997, we’ve lost two metres of water.
Most of that is natural — the Great Lakes oscillate between wet and dry spells. But a healthy amount of that water will never come back, because we’ve been dredging the St. Clair River for years, to make way for bigger ships.
Some 150 years ago, the St. Clair River was only six metres deep. Now, it’s 8.2 metres deep. Put a bigger hose on your water tank and you’d expect to spurt out water quicker (at least until the pool it was spurting into was so full, it had more pressure than the water in the tank.)
After the last big dredging in 1962, the Army Corps of Engineers was supposed to put speed bumps on the river floor to damper the drain. But that never happened.
For years, it seemed like it never would, despite the screams of cottagers, marina operators, environmentalists, freight operators and the mayors of 96 cities around the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.
But on Friday that all changed.
“The middle lakes need some relief,” explained IJC science and engineering director Ted Yuzyk during a follow-up teleconference Monday.
The recommendation: Restore 13 to 25 centimetres of water to Lakes Huron and Michigan, likely through flexible structures in the St. Clair River. But, do an environmental assessment and cost-benefit analysis — both of which could take three to five years, Yuzyk estimated.
In the latest IJC study on the subject, experts suggested the cost of putting things like underwater sills or turbines into the St. Clair River could range from $30 million to $170 million. They also flagged environmental concerns, including the precious spawning grounds of sturgeon in the river.
Finally, they said it would take 30 years to fully restore that amount of water to Lakes Huron and Michigan. On Monday, Yuzyk said it would likely be eight to 10 years.
We are in for a long process, either way. But, at least we are on the way.