IJC recommends government action for Lake Huron-Michigan water levels

The International Joint Commission (IJC) has recently recommended Canadian and U.S. governments address water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

Responsible for preventing and resolving disputes regarding lakes and rivers along the countries’ shared border, the IJC’s recommendation comes in response to more than 3,500 comments received from the public as well findings from the International Upper Great Lakes Study.

For many cottagers, it’s no secret that water levels have recently hit record lows, said to be a result of long-term dredging to maintain the St. Clair River’s shipping channel and warm, dry weather, among other reasons. In regions such as Georgian Bay, the drop has been so drastic that marinas have been forced to close, affecting tourism, cutting off access to island cottages, and most of all, disturbing the overall ecosystem.

In fact, measurements taken in January showed Lake Huron and Lake Michigan at their lowest levels since the record keeping began in 1918. And while an extended period of low levels is not unheard of, the Commission says the concern it shares with the public has been highlighted by these historic lows.

“Although future water levels are uncertain, we can not ignore the damage from record low water levels,” said Joe Comuzzi, Canadian Chair of the Commission. “From Georgian Bay to Door County, from shoreline property owners to the shipping industry, we heard calls for action, and we urge governments to act in response to our recommendations.”

The advice? For the governments of Canada and the United States to investigate structural options that would restore water levels in Lake Michigan-Huron by 13 to 25 centimetres (about 5 to 10 inches). This would include a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis and a detailed environmental impact study. Structural solutions could include sills, dikes, weirs, inflatable flap gates, inflatable weirs, and hydrokinetic turbines. According to a recent release by the IJC, the letter encouraged governments to “focus on options that would not exacerbate future high water levels but that would provide relief during periods of low water.”

But despite the Commission’s efforts, there are some criticisms. According to reports, David Sweetnam, executive director of Georgian Bay Forever, questions whether this approach will be enough.

“They are throwing a bone to people,” he told the Midland Free Press. “If they’re not working on the right solutions, it will be a waste of time and money, and they’ll end up realizing in 10 years that they’re not addressing the issues, and we’ll be back at the trough.”

And he’s not the only one doubtful of the Commission’s efforts: U.S. chair of the Commission, Lana Pollack, did not sign the recommendation because, in her view, it “places insufficient emphasis on climate change and the need for governments to pursue adaptive management strategies in the basin.” She also expressed concern that “the advice may also raise false hopes that structures in the St. Clair River, if built, would be sufficient to resolve the suffering from low water levels of Lake Michigan-Huron, while at the same time causing possible disruption downstream in Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie.”

Regardless of the solution, it is not likely to be a quick or easy process. As the IJC addresses in its recommendation: “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.”

To view the IJC’s full recommendation to the government, click here.