Getting at the Burr in the Water Levels Debate

It’s not sexy, but the distinction between restoration and multi-lake regulation explains why the issue seems to go round in circles. Get this straight, and you’ll have bragging rights just in time for your Christmas parties.

To recap: for something like 15 years now, Georgian Bayers have been deeply concerned about “their” water rushing down the St. Clair River on account of the deep navigational channels that were dug there in the 1930s to 1960s. Water levels plunged. The Georgian Bay Association, the Georgian Bay Foundation and their supporters succeeded in getting the International Joint Commission to pay attention, a very considerable achievement; and that resulted in the Upper Great Lakes Study Board, the scientific arm of the IJC, looking at the impacts of permanently restoring water levels by some pre-determined amounts from 10 to 50 cm in Michigan-Huron-Georgian Bay. While this might be possible, the Board determined that this could negatively affect all the water bodies downstream and might exacerbate the threat of flooding should water levels rise naturally.

The Board then turned its attention to multi-lake regulation. By adding new structures, could water be shared around, not necessarily raised some  set amounts? This too had its drawbacks and tradeoffs: it would be very expensive, bureaucratic and might not work very well given the uncertainties of climate change.

Since the Board made these deliberations, the difference between water restoration and multi-lake regulation has been getting murky.  In fact, the IJC contributed significantly to this murkiness when it recommend a hybrid of the two in its all-important Advice to Governments, April 15, 2013, the culmination of five years and a $17 million study on water level issues in the upper Great Lakes. (We’re still waiting to hear back from the U.S. and Canadian  governments on this.)

Campbell dock 2

The IJC was very specific that it wanted the two federal governments to consider restoring 13 to 25 centimeters (5 to 10 inches) to water levels in Michigan-Huron, amounts  pegged to compensation for mid-20th century dredging episodes in the St. Clair River.

But at the same time, the IJC recommended that the governments focus on an option “that would not result in a permanent restoration change that could exacerbate future high water levels, but rather one that could primarily provide relief during low water periods.” Italics: mine.

Campbell dock detail 2

Now leveraging water up and down necessitates big decisions: how much; when to do it and when to stop; this is according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that  would most likely have responsibility for the construction of any kind of engineered solution. An internal USACE report on St. Clair Compensating Works dated May 2013. reads:

“Compensation structures constructed would most likely be of a static nature, meant to raise the upstream lakes back to their pre-dredging levels. There have been recent suggestions [the IJC’s Advice doc] of looking at flexible systems that could be removed or altered during high water periods. This would essentially mean that Lakes Michigan and Huron would become regulated. It would require the creation of a regulation plan for the middle lakes and a corresponding IJC Board of Control to oversee operations. As such, the scope of this GRR [General Reevaluation Report] would involve significant bi-national coordination and multi-level review, likely up to the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.” (Italics mine.)

Green and pink cabbage like flower

USACE is saying water level flexibility is the back door through which multi-lake regulation comes: flexibility necessitates regulation; and regulation becomes multi-lake regulation because how can you stop short of considering all the impacts on all the affected water bodies not just the middle Great Lakes?

The Study Board recommended against any new regulatory structures in the Great Lakes: given their expense and various uncertainties, they wouldn’t work very well; and the tradeoffs would be unacceptable.

The IJC wants to see compensation for dredging in the St. Clair River, flexibility without multi-lake regulation. That looks like a muddle to me.

The International Joint Commission Advice to Governments can be found at:

http://www.ijc.org/files/publications/IUGLS-IJC-Report-Feb-12-2013-15-April-20132.pdf

The International Upper Great Lakes Study: Final Report to the International Joint Commission, March 2012 can be found at:

http://ijc.org/iuglsreport/

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