The time to act to restore our water level is now
Some of the 600 people attending Monday's night's hearing. DOUGLAS GLYNN The Free Press
The International Joint Commission (IJC) was told Monday that a “do nothing” approach to restore the water levels of Lakes Michigan-Huron and Georgian Bay is unacceptable.
Simcoe North MP Bruce Stanton joined Great Lakes advocate Mary Muter of the Sierra Club and scores of North Simcoe residents in calling on the IJC to act.
The commission is an independent binational body established by the United States and Canada under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909.
Its members were in Midland to hear public comment on the final report of its International Upper Great Lakes Study Board, Lake Superior Regulation: Addressing Uncertainty in Upper Great Lakes Water Levels.
The Study Board report examined whether the regulation of outflows from Lake Superior through the compensating works and power dams on the St. Mary’s River at Sault Ste. Marie might be improved to take into consideration the evolving needs of users on the Great Lakes: Superior, Huron, Michigan and Erie.
The report has been sharply criticized for what has been called its “do nothing” approach to restoring the declining water levels in Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.
The hearing was delayed a half hour when the meeting had to move to a larger room in the North Simcoe Sports and Recreation Centre to accommodate about 600 people who showed up for the event in a room with a seating capacity of less than 300.
Stanton said he recognized that “we here on Georgian Bay can’t consider ourselves isolated from the rest of the lake system; that our experience here is directly related to up- and downstream realities.
“For the most part, the forces acting on the upper lakes that cause the fluctuation and cycling of water levels, is due to the natural environment that we cannot influence — GIA (Glacial Isostatic Adjustment), hydro-climatic,” Stanton said.
While supporting most of the study’s recommendations, he expressed concern “that the new regulation will provide a greater ability to restrict Lake Superior flows downstream to Huron- Michigan for the purpose of protecting navigation and hydro-electric power generation.
“I realize it takes a larger contribution of Lake Superior to have even a tangible effect on water levels in Huron-Michigan,” he said. “But facing the likelihood of a continued downward trend in water levels here, Huron-Michigan will need all the help that can be mustered.
“This dynamic between Superior and the next tier down on Huron-Michigan is all the more reason I raise my final point that, in my view, is something that has been overlooked,” said Stanton.
“I understand the potential risk that restoration measures in the St. Clair River pose for increasing the threat of reaching historical high levels in the future, especially in the southwest portions of Lake Michigan-Huron and the difficulties that scenario poses for flooding, shoreline damage, etc.”
“But, it seems to me that restoration and mitigation measures in the St. Clair River remain our only basis for preventing further reductions in Georgian Bay water levels,” Stanton said. “The St. Clair River is all we have left if we are to stabilize, and hopefully improve on the historically and persistently low water level we have experienced since 2000.
“By your own calculations, the 1962 dredging (of the river) yielded about a 5% increase in conveyance of the St. Clair River,” Stanton said.
“Voices representing shoreline owners in my region have submitted credible arguments suggesting the conveyance may even be higher — about a 7% increase.
“I am disappointed those submissions have not been responded to as of yet,” he said.
“Taking a serious look at these restoration and mitigation measures, in my belief, need to be revisited. I take some encouragement from the rather conditional recommendation you first endorsed in the 2009 St. Clair River report ‘that remedial measures not be taken at this time’.
“That’s fair enough, but may I suggest that you consider an eighth recommendation in this Phase 2 and final report that as the hydro-climatic science and adaptive management strategy begins to build a body of scientific knowledge around this question — the remedial, restorative measures on the St. Clair River be revisited by the new advisory board on an annual basis.
“If the downward water level trend on Huron-Michigan is persisting over that time,” he added, “the advisory board recommends that the IJC reverse its 2009 position and, indeed, recommend that remedial measures in the St. Clair River be implemented without delay.”
Mary Muter told the Commission the Sierra Club’s Ontario Great Lakes section does not accept the Study Board’s findings or recommendations regarding St. Clair River restoration.
“We know devastation has happened to our wetlands. Diking a few of the thousands of dried-up wetlands will do nothing for fish that need wetlands for spawning and or nursery habitat,” Muter said.
“The bottom line is that some of the science has not been carried out at the level worthy of the IJC. The list of misrepresentations in the report and the failure, at times, to use accurate data have led to conclusions that, if followed, will lead to further ecological harm.
“The most egregious error is the conclusion that nothing can be done in a responsible manner to slow the flow through the St. Clair River,” she said.
“Unless the mainly finite waters of the Great Lakes are managed reasonably by restoring Michigan-Huron-Georgian Bay to their pre-1962 levels, the decline will continue.
“Eventually, less and less water will flow down the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers. What will happen to Lakes St. Clair and Erie? They will suffer the same consequence as Georgian Bay.”
Muter said she believes the study was carried out to intentionally divide and conquer the concerned peoples of Lakes Michigan-Huron-Georgian Bay.
“Never at any time was there a realistic attempt to develop a consensus toward this long-standing problem. You have to reverse the fear generated by the 2011 Study Board report and last summer’s public meetings,” she urged.
“Unfortunately for the general public, the science is so complex that their ability to understand it is extremely limited. That has saved the Study Board from close scrutiny and more overt public outrage.
“The time to act to restore our water level is now before further ecological and economic harm occurs,” Muter said.
“For 13 years, our water levels have met the terms of crisis conditions as identified in your 1993 levels reference study. Canada’s well-respected Great Lakes hydrologist Ralph Pentland said if the governments came together following a recommendation from the commission, restoration structures could be in place within 10 years. We do not have a moment to waste,” she concluded.
Patricia Chow-Fraser, a McMaster University professor, said she was speaking on behalf of “all the organisms that cannot speak for themselves: the fish, the frogs, the turtles.”
The 1993 levels study concluded that wetlands would be a key indicator in discussions about water levels. This means all water levels — not just Lake St. Clair levels, she said.
There are extensive tracts of coastal wetlands in eastern and northern Georgian Bay. In Eastern Georgian Bay, there are 3,700 wetland units along the 4,500 kilometres; they are critical for spawning and nursery of the Lake Huron fish community. Muskie and pike fisheries in particular depend on flooding of coastal wetlands.
“The wetlands of eastern and northern Georgian Bay are of the highest quality,” said Chow-Fraser. “We have already lost a quarter of them because of low water levels since the 1990s. We will continue to lose fish habitat at a rate of 7-8% for every 25 centimetres (the water levels drop).
“Fish like pike and muskie are migratory and need to have free access to wetlands throughout the year. They cannot cross the dykes.
“Doing nothing is doing something. You are eliminating wetlands. Why isn’t there an estimate of the wetlands that have already been lost?” she asked.
“Doing nothing is not letting nature take its course, because the problem is human-made to begin with,” she said in a reference to the dredging that has occurred in the St. Clair River.
George Lawrence, deputy mayor of Tiny, said doing nothing is not an option.
“Dredging is now commonplace to enable our marinas to carry on. Businesses and jobs are at great risk. Waterfront docks we once tied boats to do not even reach the water. It’s apparent that after $17 million has been spent (on the study) there is a problem.”
Patricia Watts of Beausoleil First Nation said she has watched the water levels drop over the years.
“I see fish, deer and other game gone. What of our hunting and fishing rights? Water is our right! What do I tell my grandchildren?”
Beth Elson, also from Beausoleil First Nation, presented the commissioners with a resolution passed by the Anishinabek Grand Council notifying all levels of government that Anishinabek communities have a decision-making authority and legal rights in the development, approval, and operation of any regime governing the Great Lakes basin.
She said the Anishinabek people should be directly involved in any decisions.
David Sweetnam, executive director of Georgian Bay Forever and Georgian Baykeeper, said a point made in an opening video at the hearing suggesting the costs of a multi-lake regulation “exceeded the benefits” was premature and possibly should be removed.
“In order to put the costs of a proactive option like multi-lake regulation into perspective, we would expect there to be a comparative assessment of the significant cost impacts on municipalities, shipping, First Nations, marinas, power generation, recreational boating, cottagers, and other businesses dependant on the water arising from the do-nothing recommendation.
“Such a statement that the costs of multi-lake regulation exceed the benefits presupposes to answer this question without any evidence.”
In an interview afterward, he said the most important message is that multi-lake regulation addresses multiple stakeholders that for too many years have been held apart instead of being brought together.
Protecting not just low lows, but preventing the high highs that are of concern to others in Lake Michigan as well as in Georgian Bay and elsewhere is important.
“Despite the comments in the press last week from IJC staff, this may well be the one-size-fits-all solution. Considering all stakeholders is necessary for the solution,” said Sweetnam.
“We were happy to see the public engage, but we would like to see that same vigour applied by people in coming to truly understand the situation beyond the hyperbole and embrace real pragmatic solutions.”