Category Archives: Water Levels

“Low Water Blues”: Not So Low, Not So Blue But So Overblown

Water LilyA Review of Low Water Blues: An Economic Impact Assessment of Future Low Water Levels in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River

Executive summaries can pretty up (and smarten up) findings that have wandered away from where sponsors of a given report would like them to go. They can put a gloss over inconvenient distracting tidbits that might lead readers to think that the subject of a given report is not as troubling as it was first assumed to be. They can close the gap between what the wonks writing the paper think is judicious and what an agency supporting the study thinks will help their cause.

Keep this in mind when reading Low Water Blues: An Economic Impact Assessment of Future Low Water Levels in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. This is the long awaited report by the Council of the Great Lakes Region (CGLR) and Ontario’s Mowat Centre. It tallies the costs attributable to low water levels for five economic sectors, (shipping, tourism, waterfront properties and water users) and provides descriptions but no fast numbers for low water impacts on ecological services and First Nations. The numbers are “sobering” says the executive summary: 9.61B from now until 2030 and $18.82B from now through to 2050, not including the costs of indirect impacts.

These worst-case scenario numbers are predicated on water levels hovering around the bottom of the historic 1918 to 2014 range for the next 35 years, a prediction based on a 2005 forecast. But here’s where the facts may have wandered away from where the sponsors wanted the report’s findings to go. More recent projections estimate water levels will be significantly higher than those predicted in the 2005 study. *

Not too long ago, most of us expected climate change would drive Great Lakes water levels through the historic floor. Now, based on several creditable scenarios (noted in the CGLR report, Page 17, Figure 10) we can expect water levels to stay not only within the historic norms but possibly on the middle to high end.

So why didn’t the report base its economic analysis of impacts on the most recent projections?

“Relying primarily on available economic impact data has carried over limitations inherent in the available data. Specifically…we cannot draw upon the most current GLSL [Great Lakes St. Lawrence] future water levels projections, and were forced instead to draw upon earlier projections that may have exaggerated future water level declines.”

Garden Channel 1This is a significant limitation but the important point is that water levels are expected to stay within the historic range, meaning those sectors most directly affected by them will have had some experience dealing with their ups and downs, even if these experiences are deeply buried in their organizational history.

Three decades of high water levels followed by 14 years of low water have meant that the long high looked like the norm when it wasn’t. 

“’Most of the key interests have demonstrated their capacity to adapt to changes in water level conditions that have been within historical upper or lower ranges.” Page 13. “In a region with a history of adaptation and adjustment to changing weather conditions, it is quite likely that there will be ongoing adaptation that affects multi-decadal economic impacts.’” Page 22.

Or not. Several U.S. ports have been starved of funds for necessary repairs. Indeed, in some States dedicated funds for this purpose have been siphoned off into general revenues, depriving ports of the means to upgrade. How fortunate then for the ports, if this regular maintenance bill can be tossed in with the costs associated with the water level “crisis”.

Low water levels are either something the big Great Lakes players have dealt with in the past and they should simply keep truckin’ or low water is the result of climate change, in which case pick a number and start working on your elevator pitch. Either way are Great Lakes industries entitled to special treatment? Should the government bailout marina operators in Georgian Bay and not ski resort operators? Are ports more worthy of exceptional funding than flood damaged roads?

Climate change is everywhere. If there is going to be any justice in how the huge costs associated with it are going to be distributed, then we should make an effort to understand the real environmental drivers.

Sunset 1Is climate change responsible for neglected infrastructure or the explosive growth of algae in Lake Erie? Is climate change destroying our wetlands or have pollutants and ever-encroaching human settlements more to do with it?

Don’t get hysterical about climate change. Just deal with it. This was the point made by an excellent report by the OECD about adaptive management: take the necessary steps to fix the climate change impacts instead of trying to make nature adapt to what we think it ought to be doing for us.

The CGLR report seems to be heading in the opposite direction. It is the brainchild of Georgian Bay Forever whose objective is to “address this crisis once and for all” by building a case for an all-encompassing multi-lake regulation project. This moniker has recently been replaced with “dynamic control structures” and “climate resilient structures.” They/it won’t work and they would cost a lot; so say the International Great Lakes Study Board and the International Joint Commission, both of which have backed adaptive management instead.

The authors of the CGLR report seemed to struggling to tell a bigger story than what the sponsors had in mind. Besides the lack of economic data to match the most recent water level projections already mentioned, the authors admit to not being able to “reliably quantify offsetting positive impacts of low water levels, since the available economic impact data focuses on negative impacts.” Page 22.

The authors wanted to balance the low water levels story with reports about the downsides of high water levels, which they did to some extent, but obviously these are inconvenient scenarios that get in the way of painting a very dark picture of the impact of low water levels.

Sadly missing is the story of the great economic opportunities represented by fixing things. These are jobs that can’t be exported to China. The progressive types these days are making the case that climate change is anything but a “job-killer” but not the CGLR report.

Waiting for a once-and-for-all hydrological structural solution means the day of reckoning with climate change gets postponed. It’s a distraction from our having to take responsibility for the state of our infrastructure and protecting what natural environment we have left.

*Water levels may go up, but we can still expect extreme weather systems and back-to-back climate surges. In January 2013, Michigan-Huron hit its all-time low, which was quickly followed by the winter of 2014 when ice cover in the Great Lakes hit 92%, up from 12.9% the previous year with a resulting dramatic rebound in water levels this summer.

To comment, join me on Twitter @PennyPepperell

Low Water Blues: An Economic Impact Assessment of Future Low Water Levels in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, Council of the Great Lakes Region (CGLR) and the Mowat Centre Ontario’s Voice on Public Policy, June 2014

Water and Climate Adaptation: Policies to Navigate Uncharted Waters:

“Water Levels and a Major Report from UNESCO”, my blog,


Is a plug in the St. Clair River really going to fix low water levels?

Stump with SnowYou 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.

Garden plants in snowThe 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

Upper Great Lakes Study: Final Report to the International Joint Commission, March 2012

Decision Document Review Plan: St Clair River Compensating Works, St. Calir River (Michigan and Canada) General Reevaluation Report, May 2013

Learning to live with our water levels, whatever they are, and be happy

Georgian Bayers may have dodged a bullet for now. Ice cover, a significant determinant of lake levels (as well as summer water temperatures and spring plankton blooms) should reach 57-62% across the Great Lakes by February say GLERL scientists (Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratories.) This is slightly above the long-term average. Last year ice cover came in at 38.4%.

Nelly with big stickThe U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts all the Great Lakes except Huron-Michigan will reach their average water levels or exceed them this summer, but a wide swath of uncertainty still remains.

The turn around poses special problems for shoreline communities. They’re now up against the reality that water levels go up as well as down and this can happen fast. (Of course fluctuations are a given, we know this, but much of the lobbying for doing something about low water levels has focused on low and lower water levels.)

Sadly, the upswing this year, doesn’t change the fundamentals of climate change; the Great Lakes are evaporating at a greater rate than we would like.

Shoreline communities around the world are the hardest hit as people and critters have always chosen homesteading on the edges of waterways.  Entire mini societies and species face complete annihilation.  That is not true of communities on the Great Lakes, but a radically refashioned shoreline is pitting nature against us for prime and shifting real estate.

The up-and-downness of it all poses serious dilemmas for higher levels of government considering bailouts for these communities. What’s normal? Are 100-year storms going to show up every couple of years? Given the extent of climate change, who should be compensated and who should fend for themselves? It will take the wisdom of Solomon to thread our way through short-term thinking and dodge the loudest screamers and false prophets to figure out where to slap down our billions. (I’m hoping the long-anticipated Council of Great Lakes Region’s economic study will throw some light on this.)

Winter puddleAnd don’t think for a second that the restoration of water levels/St. Clair River project that the International Joint Commission recommended to the Canadian and U.S. governments will address the fallout from climate change. It is meant to compensate for what drained away via dredging in the ’60s.

In an excellent report by UNESCO on learning to live with climate change, the authors warned against such boutique projects. “Avoid skewing financing to specialty projects that might be easily labeled adaptation but do not necessarily maximize net benefits.” Let’s hope the federal governments who are expected to come up with a response to the recommendations of the International Joint Commission keep their sights firmly on climate change.

The big questions are, what is the quality of our environment, our economy, our water supply, and how can we fix what’s ailing. Through the prism of adapting to climate change, we can address questions we should have asked ages ago, infrastructure questions as well as local questions such as, is it possible for a dock to coexist with an encroaching wetland—seeing as the old wetland is now a meadow?

Grey rock w snowGovernments and think tanks are jumping into adaptive management but their attempts seem  soporifically bureaucratic. It’s still early days. Success will depend on innovation and big thinking, but just as importantly it will come from ordinary folks figuring out how to run their lives and businesses in a testier world. This could be a job creator. Yes we badly need engineers and lots of money, but also small, incremental, artisanal, locally made solutions, and millions of cut-and-paste proposals.

IJC Adaptive Management Plan: Building Collaboration Across the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence System:

Water and Climate Adaptation: Policies to Navigate Uncharted Waters:

The International Joint Commission Advice to Governments:

Council of the Great Lakes Region: the economic study should be released early this year.

Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratories:

What’s Coming at the Bufflehead and a Year-End Wrap Up

Happy New Year Everybody.

Coming to this blog this winter and spring:

Water levels in the middle Great Lakes, in particular the expected U.S. and Canadian governments’ response to the International Joint Commission‘s recommendations, possibly the most important development in the decades-long effort to address the decline in water levels. Also expected soon is a report from the Council of the Great Lakes Region on the economic impact of lower water levels. This should provide a handy way to quantify what is at stake.

Bull rushes snowIn the meantime, you might want to check out three blogs on water levels in the archive that are as current now as they were a few months ago: October 28th; November 6th; and December 4th.

Birds and other critters, including Asian carp, with again, an emphasis on what the studies show. If you missed my blogs the first time round, you might want to have a look at what I’ve written on frogs, ravens and crows, wolves and moose. And don’t miss my review of Jon Mooallem’s excellent book on our all-too-human, funny, heroic/pathetic efforts to save the critters we love, sometimes at the expense of critters we love a little less. Check out these postings on Oct 28th; November 6th and 20th; and December 18th.

Science and politics: not a healthy mix due to cutbacks and ideological meddling, but alas the situation is worsening as the federal government’s reach is expanding to include other targets. This is truly alarming stuff. Stay tuned. If you feel the need to catch up on the muzzling of Canadian scientists or find out exactly how badly served species at risk are by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, check out the postings on October 28th; November 13th and December 11th.

snow capped sumackBut let’s not start the year on a sour note. Scientists and environmental groups, writers and ordinary folks are doing some excellent work tracking government shortfalls while looking after the animals. Our knowledge base is exploding and with it our sensitivity to, and our daunting appreciation for all that we might have to do to give the natural world a fighting chance.

The Bufflehead will resume its regular weekly postings on January 8th, 2014

Cheers everybody

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:

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

The Forgotten Billions: Why Correcting the Water Levels Problem in the Middle Great Lakes Could Cost a Whole Lot More than You Would Think

An engineered solution to low water levels in the middle Great Lakes is going to cost much much more than has been publicly discussed. Whether the solution is a structure in the St. Clair River, or less probably in the Niagara River, we would still have to come up with a great deal of money to mitigate the impacts of changing water levels on the St. Lawrence River: for structures to restrict the flow; maintain adequate depths for navigation and environmental purposes; and for excavation to prevent flooding. We might need $120 billion to cover these costs, which is why some researchers have dismissed such a project out of hand.

Inutchuk and dog 2

Costs should tell us two things: what we might have to forego in order to do something and whether a project is worth doing at all.

The Upper Great Lakes Study Board wasn’t asked to look closely at mitigation for water bodies downstream of the St. Clair River, when it addressed the water level problem  in the middle Great Lakes, but it did review the literature, most pertinently the (1993) Levels Reference Study—Great Lakes St. Lawrence Basin. The Study Board’s review can be found in its final report, Chapter 8.6.3, “Lower St. Lawrence River Mitigative Requirements.”

The scary $120 billion mentioned above would cover the costs of addressing the adverse conditions associated with relatively extreme scenarios in the lower St. Lawrence; it would facilitate the all-important buy-in of those downstream for the regulation of water levels upstream.

“Measures to improve conditions in the lower St. Lawrence River would be required to gain system-wide political support for multi-lake regulation. …The Levels Reference Study found that improving conditions over the basis of comparison [simulated historical conditions] would be too expensive, with the costs of required excavation alone exceeding $120 billion.”

Mainland Pt lady in Monk's cowl 2

Having found this bar too high, the Levels Reference Study went on to look at the costs associated with mitigating any impacts on the St. Lawrence as a result of  the proposed regulation. These came in at between approximately $3.5 and $5.1 billion for excavation alone. The additional combined cost of control structures at all locations was about $400 to $900 million, depending on the design.”

The range of water levels  the Study Board looked at in 2012 as part of examining multi-lake regulation exceeded the  range the Levels Reference Study had looked at in 1993. So understandably the Study Board came up with higher costs for mitigation than had the earlier report.

The Study Board concludes its chapter by saying, “the costs to provide such mitigation could be greater than the costs of the combined structures and excavation required on the St. Clair and Niagara Rivers for the multi-lake plans reviewed.  Therefore, multi-lake regulation should not be studied again unless consideration is given to the requirements in both the lower St. Lawrence River and the upper Great Lakes.”

Note: whether an engineered solution to raise water levels falls under the rubric of water restoration (that the IJC recommended) or multi-lake regulation, (system-wide solutions that the IJC rejected) the same claim for mitigation could be made by the St. Lawrence River.

The International Upper Great Lakes Study: Lake Superior Regulation: Addressing Uncertainty in Upper Great Lakes Water Levels, March 2012

In my next water levels blog: Restoration versus Multi-lake Regulation: Why Getting Them Mixed Up isn’t Helping the Water Levels Debate.

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