Water Levels and a Major Report from UNESCO

Revisiting Adaptive Management

What to do about low water levels is mired in controversy. The talk has mainly concerned where best to site engineering structures to fix them, whether in the St. Clair or Niagara rivers or some combination of the two. Almost never talked about is adaptive management. The International Upper Great Lakes Study Board endorsed it, as did the International Joint Commission in its letter to the U.S. and Canadian governments, but among the Georgian Bay crowd it was denounced as the unacceptable do-nothing option.

Stranded dock, Bell Island

Compared to dikes, weirs, inflatable flap gates, and hydrokinetic turbines, all mitigation measures, adaptive management doesn’t look like The Big Fix.

It is about exchanging information,  stepping gingerly forward, assessing and regrouping. Still, it is gaining ground in the world community as the best way address the uncertainties of climate change.

A recently released UNESCO study entitled Water and Climate Adaptation: Policies to Navigate Uncharted Waters, has come up with some pointers on how adaptation works after looking at how 34 countries have approached the subject. The Great Lakes wasn’t discussed. Still, UNESCO surfaced some relevant lessons and principles that should help us move forward.

Why adaptation might be a better fit than mitigation, at least for now.

UNESCO bases its argument for adaptive management on the “cascading uncertainties” resulting from climate change.  The Big Fix solutions require a high degree of certainty if they are going to  make a return on investment and not back fire.

Despite sophisticated computer modeling, the UNESCO authors profess little confidence in any guidance climate projections might provide for water management; for example, you can’t draw a line from emission trends, through their impacts and conclude what sort of floodgates are necessary.

Red tree, Crothers Woods

According to the UNESCO report, precipitation and evapotranspiration are impossible to predict. Changes in mean temperatures are slightly more predictable, but extreme temperatures aren’t. And then there are “shifting means” (the upshot of skewed extremes) that are ignored in most climate models. Different models can produce vastly different results, and comparing average yearly temperatures is highly dependent upon which particular years are compared. Also changes in river discharges and runoff cannot be estimated because they are not consistent with changes in precipitation. Similarly, it is not known what impact extreme precipitation events have on the replenishment of groundwater.

The Upper Great Lakes Study Board uncovered similar uncertainties. After $17 million dollars worth of work, its highly qualified authors confessed to an imperfect understanding of net basin supplies; a compromised ability to predict water levels a month ahead; and a poor understanding of lake dynamics and inter-annual and decadal timescales. Again, runoff is the big mystery because of an incomplete gauging of the affected land area. The Study Board concluded that the “extreme extremes” expected by climate change are beyond any proposed regulatory plan. So it shelved structures in favour of adaptive management, which it hoped could effectively address risks related to extreme water level conditions.

Big Fixes carries carry big risks and exorbitant costs.  The UNESCO paper notes, “Adaptation requires flexibility in a domain dominated by long-lived infrastructure with high sunk costs:” an apt description of the engineering marvels being bandied about for the middle Great Lakes.

The UNESCO report struck other notes that might be worth paying attention to in Georgian Bay’s water levels debate.

“Avoid skewing financing to specialty projects that might be easily labeled adaptation but do not necessarily maximize net benefits.” This might have relevance for the construction of the proposed engineering project in the St. Clair River, whose specialty project is raising water levels in the middle Great Lakes.

“Adaptation should not be undertaken in a way that focuses only on climate as a risk driver to the exclusion of other more dominant drivers of water risk, such as social, economic and political systems.” 

The complexity of actors and interests in the enormous regional economy around the Great Lakes necessitates a great sorting through if we are to live with changed climatic conditions. But assembling and studying the injuries inflicted on all these actors and interests by low water may not be the most helpful way of getting to the best solution. If the objective is to restore the old status quo, then the tallying up of the economic and environmental costs could be just a rationalization for building a “long-lived infrastructure with high sunk costs” of limited utility.

Adaptive management is sometimes mistakenly interpreted as a hopeless exercise to strip the change out of climate. But it is really about changing our behaviour in terms of our water and land uses to allow for a growing economy and a restored and possibly retooled environment. However, it carries its own set of risks and dangers. Adaptive management could be far less saleable politically than coming up with the money for dams and dikes and weirs. It may result in a shouting match  with the strongest, not necessarily the more legitimate voices getting heard.

Here’s a problem: marinas around Georgian Bay are facing economic hardships as a result of their boat slips being too shallow to accommodate their customers’ boats. At the same time wetlands are drying up, forcing its critters to relocate, putting them in conflict with human land uses, including marinas. The marinas are the keystone economic drivers in many small communities. The wetlands are important nurseries for all manner of aquatic life. In the adaptive management model, this is a problem for land and water use planners, not the hydrological engineers, the lesson being  we shouldn’t try to mitigate our way out of this dilemma with Big Fixes.

The UNESCO document talks about water security: ensuring we have enough water for our economic needs, not too much such that we have floods, and water quality sufficient for the environment and our health. The discussion is about getting to those goals in very changed circumstances.

“From a risk perspective, the long-term consequences of ‘normal’ (high probability, low initial impact) but recurrent and chronic threats to water security such as competition for water resources among various users or pollution deserves much greater attention from a risk perspective.”

So climate change is the opener. It is only the first step to assessing what our needs are and how we are going to deal with them. The danger is we will pursue solutions that won’t work but that everyone wants to believe will work. Getting to real solutions to our real problems is going to be much much harder than that.

Adaptive management is the sleeper issue behind the water levels crisis.

Water and Climate Adaptation: Policies to Navigate Uncharted Waters can be found at www.oecd-ilibrary.org/environment/water-and-climate-change-adaptation_9789264200449-en

3 thoughts on “Water Levels and a Major Report from UNESCO

  1. Mike Green

    Penny: wouldn’t a controllable, inflatable weir in the St. Clair River be classed as an adaptive solution? It could be adjusted up or down depending on what is needed at the time?

    Also, for us on the Bay: what specific adaptive measures would YOU recommend? (eg: Floating vs Fixed Boat Houses comet to mind).

    Keep up the great work…..Mike Green.

  2. Penny Pepperell Post author

    A controllable inflatable weir in the St. Clair River would be classified as a mitigative measure to control water levels, not adapt to them. Adjusting the flow up and down according to what is needed raises the question of what is needed? Would Lake Erie’s needs be accorded the same value as the middle Great Lakes? What body would adjudicate these things? The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Upper Great Lakes Study Board see adjustments as requiring regulation, and that is a huge, huge issue. The IJC in its letter to the U.S. and Canadian governments seem to have dodged this question. In terms of what specific adaptive measures I would recommend, based on the UNESCO report, I think we have to frame this question in an entirely different way. The question is not how do we restore water levels, but what our particular needs for a healthy ecosystem and our human needs and how, considering all the possible ways and means, we could achieve that result. This turns the attention to what can be done using the levers of water and land management, local responses. Beyond that, I have no answers. Thanks for writing.

  3. Ed Garner

    Penny: This is a great blog with a lot of very valuable information. I very much agree with what you have written about the recent UNESCO report. I believe the current popular attitude on the Bay is at least partially caused by our cultural desire to control the world around us. All to often those efforts simply lead to larger problems. I do not believe the current ideas floating around the Bay for “fixing the middle Great Lakes” will work. It is difficult for me too understand how we could spend 17 million dollars on a carefully done study only to dismiss the results because they do not suggest an immediate fix focused on management one section of a large complex system..

    As you have clearly stated the IUGLS report does not recommend a “do nothing approach”. They recommend adaptive management. I can only conclude that folks consider adaptive management as “doing nothing”. I assume that is because they have not taken the time to understand what is intended by adaptive management and the huge effort it will require from all of us. It is just much easier to tell the USACE to plug up the St. Clair river.

    I am also hearing that the “Middle Great Lakes are not performing in a normal manner” because they are not returning to near average levels as quickly as the other Great Lakes. This concept seems to ignore the fact that the net basin supplies to each of the Lakes is an independent variable. The Lakes never have all risen or fallen at the same rate so why would we expect that to occur now. Compare Michigan/Huron levels with Superior Levels between 1930 and 1960 or M/H versus Lakes Erie and also Ontario during the recovery from the 1964 low water. See plots at :http://www.lre.usace.army.mil/Portals/69/docs/GreatLakesInfo/docs/WaterLevels/LTA-GLWL-Graph.pdf

    Penny Thanks for your efforts on this blog and on so many other things on the Bay.

    Ed Garner

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