You may have got the impression from something you read or heard recently that the U.S. government has decided to proceed with a fix for the Michigan-Huron-Georgian Bay low water levels problem, but you might want to hold your applause. The United States Army Corps of Engineers has set aside a small amount in its 2014 budget, $50,000—lunch money—for some preliminary work leading up to a General Reevaluation Report on compensating works in the St. Clair River. This is a very narrow look at the water levels problem and Canada and the U.S. have not signed on to it.
Back in 2009, the scientific arm of the IJC, the International Upper Great Lakes Study Board, the authors of the $17 million report on water levels, had advised against such an approach. It “recommended that remedial measures not be undertaken at this time and that…the need for mitigative measures in the St. Clair River be examined as part of the comprehensive assessment of the future effects of climate change.”
This comment was contained in an interim report written before the IJC told the Study Board politely in future to keep its opinions to itself. Instead, the IJC advised the Board that it should “provide Governments and the public with extremely valuable information and insight to help form the basis for rational and scientifically-based decision making.” With that, the way was clear for the Commission to make its plug-in-the-St-Clair-River recommendation without contravening its own experts.
And so, last April, the Commission advised the U.S. and Canadian governments to investigate possibly restoring 10 inches of water to the middle Great Lakes by way of a structure in the St. Clair River. This was such slap in the face to the Study Board’s work that the U.S. section chair of the Commission, declined to sign on to the Advice document, the creature of her own agency.
“The Advice in my view places insufficient emphasis on climate change and the need for governments to pursue adaptive management,” wrote Lana Pollack. “The Advice may also raise false hopes that structures in the St. Clair River would be sufficient to resolve the suffering from low water levels in Michigan-Huron, while at the same time causing possible disruption downstream in Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie.”
The IJC sans Lana Pollack, wanted to finally put the dredging problem behind them—now made infinitely worse by record low water levels—a problem the general public seemed to think was responsible, and a problem that had been dragging on despite innumerable studies, plans, designs and approvals for more than half a century.
It would have been infinitely easier to have slowed down the river back in the ’60s when the major digging took place—before a new ecological and hydrological world had formed around the wound. But now in 2014, the big water-level agent is climate change and there are many stakeholders with legitimate interests in the status quo.
Besides being spooked by all the uncertainties association with climate change, the Study Board looked at the various scenarios for water restoration and saw big winners and losers: shipping and recreational boating in the middle Great Lakes would love it but there would possibly be flooding and erosion in the Chicago area; bureaucratic entanglements (the necessity for a bi-national entity comparable to the one for the St. Lawrence Seaway); and a diminished hydro-electric generation capacity but improved fish spawning habitat in the St. Mary’s River at the mouth of Lake Superior.
But the really tragic tradeoffs concerned the environment. Georgian Bay wetlands would benefit but “restoration structures would have significant adverse environmental impacts on the St. Clair River system, home to five listed species-at-risk (endangered or threatened) including lake sturgeon. Environmental laws of both Canada and the United States require that this unique habitat be protected.”
But here’s the crusher: relief for Georgian Bay wetlands would only be fleeting. Georgian Bay is being steadily drained drip-by-drip, 10 inches a century, by Glacial Isostatic Adjustment (GIA), the gradual rebounding of the earth’s crust following the melting of glacial ice that weighed down the Great Lakes during the Ice Age.
“Restoration would temporarily help to counteract the effects of GIA and lowered water levels in Georgian Bay,” said the Study Board. “However, restoration of Lake Michigan-Huron levels would compound the effects of GIA in much of the densely populated southern portion of the upper Great Lakes. ”
GIA really comes into play when you consider the length of time an engineering project would take to get off the ground. The Study Board identified 20 years for planning, environmental reviews, regulatory approvals and design steps; plus 30 more years for a staged construction, which would allow the coastal areas to ease in gently to a rise in water levels. The Army Corps estimates the completion of its General Reevaluation Report and Final Environmental Impact Statement alone would take until 2025.
The IJC’s Advice to Government saw a greatly reduced timeline. “It is important to note that the full effects of these structures would not be immediate, but rather could take up to a decade to achieve the desired outcome, depending on hydrological conditions.” Ten years: another case of false hopes?
The good people of Georgian Bay sounded the alarm about low water levels years ago, committing considerable political capital and treasure to the problem. Georgian Bay wetlands are some of the most pristine and complex fresh water ecosystems in the world. But saving them, the little it is still possible to save, is going to take the hard incremental ongoing work of adaptive management. (See my October blog “Water Levels and a Major Report from UNESCO” for an explanation for what this means.) Waiting for the hydrological engineers to come up with a contraption probably isn’t going to deliver what we want.
The International Joint Commission’s Advice to Governments on the Recommendations of the International Upper Great Lakes Study, April 15th, 2013 http://www.ijc.org/files/publications/IUGLS-IJC-Report-Feb-12-2013-15-April-20132.pdf
Upper Great Lakes Study: Final Report to the International Joint Commission, March 2012 http://www.iugls.org/Final_Reports
Decision Document Review Plan: St Clair River Compensating Works, St. Calir River (Michigan and Canada) General Reevaluation Report, May 2013 www.lre.usace.army.mil/Portals/69/docs/PPPM/PlanningandStudies/ApprovedReviewPlans/StClairComp.pdf