Tag Archives: low 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.

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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 http://councilgreatlakesregion.org/projects/low-water-blues/

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

“Water Levels and a Major Report from UNESCO”, my blog, https://wordpress.com/read/post/id/57411214/25/


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