Fall 2020 Update

Unfortunately, due to COVID we are unable to hold our annual Science Symposium to be able to report on our research over the past year. We were able to provide some support for McMaster U’s research – also limited by the university’s COVID research requirements. Their labs are now on a limited basis open.

Therefore, we offer instead a summary of our research and hope that you will take the time to read this and understand our urgent need for donations to allow this critical research to continue.

Get THE GBGLF’s answers on why water levels are so high, the damages happening and what can and should be done

Lakes Michigan Huron and Georgian Bay (MH/GB) have by far the widest range of levels – 6.5 feet, but Lake Superior is tightly regulated by the IJC’s International Lake Superior Board of Control (ILSBC) and held to a 4-foot range. When supplies are high, more water is allowed to flow from Superior into MH/GB and, when low supplies happen, the ILSBC holds back water beyond what its Regulation Plan permits. Where is the equity in those decisions?

What is the most significant impact of extreme water levels on Georgian Bay?

The most significant impact of extreme levels is the loss of wetland habitat; the wildlife, fish including young bass, pike, walleye and musky, and Species At Risk turtles, frogs and snakes are dependent on the wetlands for spawning and nursery habitat. If those species cannot find protected wetland habitat, they simply do not lay eggs. The IJC is supposed to consider the impacts on the environment, especially wetlands, when decisions are being made regarding water levels.

Algal Blooms

Algal blooms as a result of flooded dead trees in what was a pristine wetland

Great Lakes wetland biologists know:

  • That a range of 5 – 5.5 feet is good for wetlands diversity, but outside that range wetland harm and habitat loss occurs.
  • GB wetlands are on glacial till sediments scattered amongst the 30,000 islands including Manitoulin – they cannot migrate where there are granite shorelines or forested areas.
  • McMaster U’s Prof. Pat Chow-Fraser has determined that GB has the highest quality, most diverse, most extensive wetlands found anywhere in the Great Lakes but, because of their locations, are the most sensitive to extreme, what IJC has defined as “crisis” water levels, high or low.
  • The dead vegetation in currently extreme high water levels releases nutrients causing algal blooms in once pristine wetlands.

Above: photo of a McMaster researcher trying to set up fyke nets to assess fish populations in flooded wetlands with dying shrubs and trees. They were unsuccessful. The small fish cannot get into protected nearshore wetland plants to hide and are being devoured by large fish. This loss of habitat could impact, for years to come much wildlife and the recreational fishery. GBGLF needs funding to enable ongoing assessment by McMaster U Prof. Chow-Fraser to provide – to the IJC and all government levels – evidence of harm due to extreme high water levels.

What do forecasting models tell us about what is likely ‘around the corner’?

The answers are in Baird Report III carried out by GBGLF.

How accurate are these forecasts?

  • These predictions line up with historic data – this is the first basic test for an accurate model.
  • The St. Clair River riverbed is not stable; so until that is addressed, any government agency predictions could be off.

If the St. Clair River is unstable and changes in its conveyance capacity are adversely impacting our water levels, what needs to be done?

We badly need implementation of the recommendations to our governments made by the IJC in 2013 to design and install flexible structures that will prevent future “crisis” low water levels, without impacting high water. This flexible installation is especially important given the “crisis” low water predicted to impact GB by 2030.

We also need:

  1. Regular bathymetric measurements of the entire St. Clair River including the delta;
  2. Mathematical 3-dimensional modeling to determine conveyance change and to be able to determine best methods of stabilizing the riverbed;
  3. With 3D modeling, determine best flexible measures to be used to alleviate extreme highs and lows of water levels.

Possible flexible structures to restore MH/GB in Low Water

Explore the potential for flexible compensation structures that hold water back when levels are low but not when levels are high. For this concept to work, the structures must have very high hydraulic drag when deployed, and almost none when not. The hydrofoil gates shown below are designed to meet this criterion.

Further, we need the Coordinating Committee meeting minutes to determine how and if the ILSBC met their criterion “to balance upstream and downstream conditions and interests”. These minutes were formally requested in June 2020 by Restore Our Water International, and that request has yet to be complied with. We, as a member organization of Restore Our Water International, will continue to pursue obtaining these minutes.

Significant differences remain between Components and Residual methods of calculating the amount of water in each lake or its Net Basin Supply. Components method appears currently to be much less accurate but continues to be used by ECCC. Components relies on evaporation and precipitation estimates provided by a rather sparse array of instruments. Residual method uses readily measurable data of levels and flows. Since the US Army Corps of Engineers uses the much more certain Residuals method, its predictions are more reliable.

What’s known and not known about existing water levels control structures?

There is no control for the outflow of Lakes MH/GB and Erie. The other lakes have Control Boards that meet monthly and set discharge amounts. The Lake Superior Board of Control has a criterion “to consider both upstream and downstream conditions”, but there is little evidence of that. For instance, last winter for 4 months it released excess amounts of water beyond what the Regulation Plan 2012 allowed.

The outlet of Lake Superior at the head of the St. Marys River.

Outflow of Lakes Michigan/Huron/Georgian Bay into the St. Clair River
– unregulated width and depth and sediment load determines Outflow
– now over 100 years of uncompensated human activities
have altered forever the natural river channel

When the St. Lawrence Seaway was designed, locks and control gates were also designed for the St. Clair River, though they were not installed.

We now know that the enormous costs and ecological harm would not be acceptable; however that does not mean that “nothing” should be done now.

  • Prior to 1920, the outflow had a natural sand and gravel bar that restricted the outflow when levels were low.
  • The riverbed has been mined for sand and gravel beginning in the late 1880s
  • And the riverbed has been dredged for navigation several times – removing the rock rubble cover of the erodible sand and clay sediments.
  • Compensation measures for such extensive human intervention is needed.

What improvements could be made to coordinate the Great Lakes system to better address extreme high and extreme low water levels?

  1. We need a St. Clair/Detroit Rivers Outflow Control Board with riparian interests representation. It would oversee and monitor conveyance change via regular bathymetric measurements and would implement measures to stabilize the outflow and deploy flexible control measures during “crisis high” or “crisis low” levels.
  2. We need a review of Regulation Plan 2012 to determine if the discharges from Lake Superior to MH/GB are considering St. Clair River conveyance changes and are “balancing interests upstream and downstream”.
  3. We need riparian interest representation on the International Lake Superior Board of Control. Any deviations for hydropower must be compensated for.
  4. If the Coordination Committee mandate is adequate to oversee all the lakes and has riparian interest representation, then its oversight will be helpful.
  5. Temporary measures to alleviate IJC-defined “Crisis” levels need to be deployed in a timely manner

What are the implications of the time lag for any changes made to water levels control structures at the top of the Great Lakes system on the bottom of the system?

  • Long Lac and Ogoki diversions into Lake Superior were reduced during previous high water levels in the 1970s, 1980s and again in the 1990s.
  • The Ontario Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry could issue an Order to OPG to reduce temporarily these diversions into Lake Superior.
  • BUT—and this is important—the IJC would have to require that the Lake Superior Board of Control immediately reduce Lake Superior discharges by the same amount. (This is defined in Annex 6 of the 1993 IJC Levels Reference Study.)
  • Additionally, the IJC could require the Lake Superior Board of Control to reduce the discharges over the next several months to compensate for the (exceedances) deviations that the IJC directed from December 2019 to March 2020. This would also help to alleviate the “crisis high” levels downstream on Lakes Michigan Huron and Georgian Bay, AND Lakes Erie and Ontario.

Regarding time lags from top to bottom:

  • A reduction in Long Lac and Ogoki diversions into Lake Superior outflow of, say, 100 cms would result in a 10 cm drop in Lake M-H level in about 3.7 years due to the 177,000 square km surface area of this, the largest fresh water body in the world. As the level drops, so will the St. Clair River (SCR) flow drop by 100 cms due to the drop in elevation,
  • A 100 cms drop in SCR flow results in a 100 cms drop in Detroit River flow within days. This will change the level of Lake Erie by 10 cm in about 10 months, which in turn will decrease the flow of the Niagara River by 100 cms
  • The same 100 cms decrease will take about 7 months to lower Lake Ontario by 10 cm.
  • So it takes about 5.2 years to propagate the change from top to bottom.
  • The IJC and the Ontario government should have reduced the Long Lac and Ogoki diversions beginning in 2016 when our levels reached IJC-defined “crisis” conditions.
  • The reduction would only have increased the Albany River flow by about 4%, which is not enough to cause flooding or the “unintended consequences” that the IJC keeps referring to.
  • But if the Lake Superior Board of Control also held back the excess 360cms this fall that they discharged into MH/GB Dec. 2019 to March 2020, this would lower all the downstream lakes even more.
  • This would be a temporary reduction measure, and once MH declined to below “crisis” high conditions as in the past, the diversions could return to normal values.

Bottom line – there are better ways to manage the Great Lakes water than currently exist. We will continue to work with our US partner organizations. We have three hydrologists on our team who continue to provide expert advice and analysis. This involves complex science that we have engaged in for now close to 20 years. We do not intend to give in to flawed science or analysis, but we need YOUR support to be able to continue. See below for how to donate.

And finally, we want you to know that we received a grant from the Township of Georgian Bay to undertake nearshore water quality assessment along the Township’s Georgian Bay coast. Water samples for bacteria assessment were collected throughout the summer from Severn Sound all the way up to and including Twelve Mile Bay, and water chemistry was assessed at each location each time. McMaster U Prof. Pat Chow-Fraser designed the study, the results are currently being analyzed in her lab, and her report will be presented to the Township’s Council in December and will be available on our website.

Stay safe and all the best from our GBGLF team!

And thank you for your support.

Mary Muter, Roy Schatz, Jeremy Gawen, Jerry Smitka,
Bill Bialkowski, Paul Cowley, John Seagram

MAKE YOUR IMPACT TODAY

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and bring it to a conclusion for future generations.

We depend on private donors, foundations and sponsors like you.

In order to carry on this research and education of government agencies,
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