Why water levels are so low in cottage country

Water levels

The first thing to go—besides the water—was the dock at Bob Guest’s Georgian Bay cottage. With the water barely deep enough for a canoe, the Guests didn’t see the point in putting the dock out. Last year, as the mud flats grew along the shore, the income from a second cottage they rent out continued to dry up. Guest had long since stored his bowrider, hoping the water would return. When it didn’t, he sold the craft. “It was a pretty tough decision,” he says. “I’ve grown up with a boat and owned one all my life.”

Welcome to Lake Huron and Georgian Bay’s new low-water reality, one that’s draining dollars from cottagers and businesses, potentially sucking the life from wetlands, and pushing the International Joint Commission (IJC) to recommend that the Canadian and US governments boost the water level by as much as 25 cm. “Something should be done,” says Guest, whose grandfather bought the Severn Sound property in 1903. “If this continues, our bay will dry up.”

It’s a common sentiment on the Great Lakes this year. Hardest hit are Lake Huron, Georgian Bay, and Lake Michigan—effectively one lake, since they share the same inflow and outflow. The vast water body plumbed record lows in January, a full 73 cm below the lake’s average for 1918 to 2011, and 42 cm less than a year earlier.

The result is felt by thousands, including the Guests. Docks are stranded. Even some floating docks that still reach the waterare accessible only by ramps so steep they’re better suited for skateboard parks. Cottagers are weighing the costs of dredg-ing or blasting, and marinas are facing the same decision just to stay in business. The sailing of the MS Chi-Cheemaun ferry between Tobermory and Manitoulin was delayed this spring while the dock bumpers were adjusted for the new depths.

On Lake Huron’s north channel, in Bruce Mines, “we have no water at the end of our docks,” says Pat Peterson of Bruce Bay Cottages and Lighthouse resort. “It’s the lowest we’ve seen.”

Further south, on Carling Township’s Deep Bay, the channel connecting cottagers to Georgian Bay is perilously shallow. If the water drops another foot or so, it could limit boating access and the flushing action that maintains the smaller bay’s water quality. Even though the estimate for dredging the channel “is close to half a million dollars,” says Ed Casey, the president of the Deep Bay Association, “we’re definitely going to try to do something, maybe blasting. If there’s no longer access to Georgian Bay and you can’t swim in the water, your property values go down. Then your taxes go down, and everybody suffers.”

Georgian Bay municipalities are already pegging low-water costs to harbours, water intakes, businesses, and private landowners at hundreds of millions of dollars. Shoreline alterations by cottagers alone could be as much as $500 million, says Peter Ketchum, the reeve of the Township of the Archipelago.

Mayors of a number of Georgian Bay communities are seeking $20 million for local businesses from Ottawa and Queen’s Park “just to keep up with the problem this year,” says Gord Harrison, the mayor of Carling Township. They would also 
like tax relief for cottagers doing dock work, and cost-sharing for businesses that need shoreline work. Harrison notes that two Georgian Bay marinas will likely see, between them, 
a $300,000 dredging bill. “How many business owners can afford $150,000 
to take care of a problem in one year?”

By June, more than 4,500 people had joined Colin Dobell’s Stop the Drop campaign (stopthedrop.ca). One campaign goal is “to produce a voting map, so we can say, ‘Look, Mr. MP, or Mr. MPP, here is the extent to which people in your riding use and care about the bay.’ It makes public opinion more visible,” Dobell says. With support from boaters, tourists, 
and residents, “no one can say it’s just 
a bunch of rich cottagers.”

Fluctuating water levels usually benefit wetlands and natural shores, but the waters of Georgian Bay have dropped so low for so long that they’ve cut off fish access to about a quarter of Georgian Bay’s wetlands, says Pat Chow-Fraser, 
a professor of biology who studies wetland ecology at McMaster University. The result is that some species, such as pike, are losing spawning grounds. The problem is compounded because “people are now dredging and blasting, which will potentially damage habitat,” Chow-Fraser adds. “When water levels do come back, 
if they do, it’s going to be a permanently modified shoreline.”

Amidst the gloom, the IJC’s call for “structural options” to raise Lake Huron offers hope, but it’s not a quick solu-tion. The idea is to slow the flow into 
the St. Clair River with a fix—a weir, or 
submerged concrete “speed bump,” for example—that could be removed or lowered if high water returns. The structure would restore water that has been lost since the 1960s due to dredging in the St. Clair River and subsequent erosion. Early estimates peg the price at between $30 million and $170 million, for a gain of 10 to 25 cm. But given the extensive engineering and environmental studies required, any actual effect may be a decade away. (One major concern is the impact of temporarily reduced flows 
on lakes St. Clair and Erie.)

Still, a fix can’t come soon enough for members of the Georgian Bay Association. “Seventy-nine per cent of our members own property you can only get to by boat, so water levels are a high priority for them,” says GBA executive director Bob Duncanson.

Calling the IJC’s recommendation to raise lake levels a “healthy first step,” Duncanson says the GBA seeks “a return to a healthy historic range of water levels.” Without some way to avoid what he calls the “low lows and the high highs” on the Great Lakes, cottagers will continue to face tough decisions about shoreline alterations, and cottage property values could be imperilled.

Meanwhile, Georgian Bay Forever, the charity dedicated to studying and advocating for Georgian Bay’s environment, 
is building an economic case for a more elaborate fix, possibly using submerged barrier gates (akin to the adjustable system protecting the UK’s River Thames) 
in the Niagara River. When the economic study, illustrating the impact of low water in the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence region, 
is done by early 2014, “we think the numbers will be very significant,” says executive director David Sweetnam. “It will really open the eyes of the political leadership on both sides of the border.“Climate change has been and will continue to be the most significant player on the Great Lakes,” he adds. 
“If we have a flexible structure that can hold water back or release it if necessary, we can ‘bank’ water when those 
big storms come along, and make the system more resilient.”

The lakes are dynamic by nature, of course, and coping with that is just part of being a cottager. In the most recent example of the lake’s restless disposition, heavy rains and snowmelt combined to boost Lake Huron by 24 cm in April—the second-largest monthly gain on record, and roughly the same amount that would be retained by the proposed structure in the St. Clair River. The upward trend continued in May. The lake was up another 13 cm, ending the month just 3 cm below last year’s level, but still 50 cm below the long-term average.

Because natural shores and wetlands depend on fluctuating water levels, attempts to “fix” the lakes may, however, cause more problems than they solve, says Geoff Peach, a lifelong Lake Huron cottager and a coastal resource manager with the Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation. He points to the damming of Lake Ontario in the 1950s. Since then, the lake’s “coastal wetlands have all but evaporated,” he says. “Wetlands are the kidneys of the lake. You lose them, and you lose the capacity to keep water clear.
“I’d be patient with Mother Nature,” he adds. “If you’re somebody who can’t cope very well with change, you should not have a cottage in the Great Lakes. You’d be better off on an inland lake.”

The potential for more extremes is 
one reason the IJC is promoting “adaptive management” for the lakes. Instead of spending years studying the lakes before reacting, the commission wants 
to act more quickly, anticipating water level changes based on more monitoring and a better understanding of the lake system. Future benefits of that better understanding could be improved siting for cottages and marinas, and more flexible designs for docks and other shoreline structures. (One obvious example 
is a plan to modify the bumpers on the Chi-Cheemaun docks.)

“We have to embrace the idea of adapting our lives to lake levels, rather than trying to adapt the lakes system to how we want to live,” says Dick Hibma, a 
former Owen Sound city councillor and 
a member of the IJC’s adaptive management task team. It may not be what 
cottagers want to hear, he adds, but adaptation could be as stark as “selling the motorboat and buying a kayak.”

If that’s the case, Bob Guest has been adapting for more than a decade, and he’s not finding the new reality all that pleasant. Since his own dock became landlocked, he’s been mooring his aluminum runabout at a cousin’s dock. Last year the water was shallow, but if he 
paddled out far enough, he could start the outboard. This year, his cousin may not put the dock in at all, Guest says, with a now-familiar refrain. “There’s not enough water.”

Who pulled the plug?
At least four culprits combined to lower the water levels in Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. The fifth is a common but dubious theory.

The changing climate

Lakes are sensitive to shifting patterns of precipitation, ice cover, temperature, wind, evaporation, and recharge from groundwater. Evaporation, for example, removes 2,450 cubic metres of water per second from lakes Huron and Michigan. The IJC says the changing climate is already the main driver of shifting lake levels, responsible for a decline of between 9 and 17 cm from 1963 to 2007.

The earth is moving 

The earth in the Great Lakes basin is rebounding—albeit unevenly—from the crushing weight of the glaciers of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. The result: The ground is rising in northern Lake Huron and eastern Georgian Bay, and not rising as quickly in southeastern Lake Michigan, making low water look much more obvious around Manitoulin Island and Parry Sound. The bedrock on  the Guests’ shore, for example, has likely lifted at least 20 cm since Bob Guest’s grandfather bought the place over a century ago.

The “drain” is bigger at the St. Clair River

The IJC agrees that dredging and widening the river for navigation in the early 1960s lowered Lake Huron by 13 cm. And “an increase in the conveyance capacity” of the river may have caused another 7 to 14 cm drop.

It’s the natural cycle

Based on historic measurements and reconstructions of previous centuries, the lakes appear to follow a 160-year cycle of ups and downs, with shorter 32-year fluctuations superimposed on the bigger cycle. While we should be trending towards higher water, an IJC report notes 10- to 15-year wet and dry spells, unrelated to those cycles, have shown up “relatively frequently” during the lakes’ history.

The water is being diverted, consumed, and used for industry and irrigation

Blame often falls on water bottlers and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, but two Canadian diversions (from waterways that used to flow to James Bay) into Lake  Superior more than make up for Chicago. An IJC study estimates 112,000 megalitres are drawn per day from the upper lakes for irrigation, industrial use, and drinking water. All but one per cent returns to the watershed through precipitation and after use.