Tag Archives: International Joint Commission

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 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

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: http://www.ijc.org/en_/amplan

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

The International Joint Commission Advice to Governments: http://www.ijc.org/files/publications/IUGLS-IJC-Report-Feb-12-2013-15-April-20132.pdf

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

Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratories: http://www.glerl.noaa.gov/data/ice/

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 http://www.ijc.org/files/publications/Lake_Superior_Regulation_Full_Report.pdf

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