January 2021 Update

Want to know the facts on extreme water levels for Georgian Bay and what can and should be done to alleviate extreme highs and lows?

By GBGLF’s Bill Bialkowski and Mary Muter

The ecological and economic shoreline damages that are occurring along Lakes Michigan, Huron and Georgian Bay are staggering, but our governments and the International Joint Commission (IJC) are hiding behind climate change and are not taking any action to reduce our IJC-defined “crisis high water levels” when, in fact, they could. There are temporary measures and actions that could be taken now before any more damages occur.

Last October, two Georgian Bay organizations, the Georgian By Association (GBA) and Georgian Bay Forever (GBF), hosted a 4-hour webinar on this topic. Initially, the one long-standing organization invited us to participate; so we provided the results of our substantial research on this topic. With absolutely no notice to our organization, the organizers removed all our scientific research input on this complex topic. They are now planning to disseminate further information by answering submitted questions.

Without getting into the details of that webinar and the outcomes, Georgian Bay Great Lakes Foundation now feels compelled to share the following information. Many folks asked us last fall if we were participating, and we said yes and encouraged folks to participate. Anyone reading this newsletter should know that we have been working on this topic for almost 20 years. We have 3 consulting hydrology engineers who have been providing to us detailed analyses of Great Lakes water levels and connecting channels flows. Take a look now at US Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) graphs of current and forecasted Lake Superior and Lakes Michigan/Huron/Georgian Bay (MHGB) levels and you will see a very significant disparity.

Algal Blooms

Lakes Michigan/Huron/ Georgian Bay have a very wide range of 6.5 feet, while Lake Superior’s range is only 4 feet. Under the IJC, the International Lake Superior Board of Control’s (ILSBC) Regulation Plan 2012 has a “criterion” or requirement that they “balance interests upstream and downstream”. There is little or no evidence that is happening.  The following is from the January 2021 News release of ILSBC:

“At the beginning of January, Lake Superior is 21 cm (8.3 in) above average (1918 – 2019) and 16 cm (6.3 in) below its level of a year ago. Lake Michigan-Huron is 81 cm (31.9 in) above average and 14 cm (5.5 in) below the level at this time last year.”

And it goes on to say; “The Board expects the total outflow to be 2,170 m3/s in January, which is as prescribed by Lake Superior Regulation Plan 2012.”

So just where is the equity in that decision? The IJC has the authority to direct the ILSBC to deviate from Plan 2012 to hold back water over the winter months. The same action would alleviate our extreme “crisis” high water levels. The IJC is not doing that.

By contrast, under strong political pressure from US Lake Ontario shoreline property owners, in order to prevent flooding on Lake Ontario, the IJC did in fact deviate from Lake Ontario Regulation Plan 2014 and discharged very high amounts last summer to lower Lake Ontario water levels very significantly. Again this winter, the Lake Ontario Control Board is releasing more water, contrary to Plan 2014, in order to lower Lake Ontario. Could the same approach be ordered by the IJC for Lakes Michigan/Huron/Georgian Bay? Absolutely. There is no valid excuse for the IJC not to issue such an order.

What are GBGLF’s concerns regarding the 4-hour webinar held last October?

That webinar took the position that climate change has changed everything, and that past cycles and data are not relevant now.  In contrast, our position is that, of course climate change is real and important, but global climate models cannot easily be scaled down and be valid for the Great Lakes region. We believe that our extreme high-water levels are a result of weather-induced extreme high-water supplies that have existed since 2014.  How much longer will these persist? 

In 2017 GBGLF commissioned Baird and Associates to update their earlier model of Lake MH cyclical water levels behaviour, taking into account the longest possible record of  water levels and the 4000-year-old beach ridges records. In addition, changes to the St. Clair River conveyance capacity were to be considered.  The resulting report, known as Baird Report III, was posted to our website in 2019.  We believe that cyclical water level fluctuations as described in Baird Report III are characterized by the 35- and 165-year cycles and continue to be valid, even though we realize that climate change may have changed the intensity of some of the drivers of these cycles. Baird Report III predicts that, by 2030 or so, we will very likely return to extreme low water levels, which appear to be even lower than during the 2000 to 2013 period. Details of the Baird Report III are presented below.

The GBA/GBF webinar has confused the public with lengthy discussion of water supplies – specifically Net Basin Supply (NBS) – the amount of water supplied to each lake. The webinar presented water level predictions based on the Components Method of calculating  NBS.  There are two competing methods to calculate it, and these have historically produced different results.   NBS data can be considered accurate only when combined with water level and channel flow data into a rigorous hydraulic model, which exactly reproduces the historical water levels data. Only then can the calculations be trusted to account for month-by-month water balance in the Great Lakes. GBGLF has produced precisely such models for many years using levels and flow data provided by the USACE.

The two conflicting methods:

1) The Components Method calculates the NBS as precipitation over the lake, plus runoff from the basin, minus evaporation.  While the Components Method appears to make sense, it is open to huge numerical uncertainty (How many stations are there on a big lake that measure precipitation? Very few or none. How accurate is monthly runoff, given unknown time delays? Evaporation is only based on temperature models.) The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) at The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used to champion the Components Method but abandoned it in about 2016. However, this approach to calculate NBS has been taken over in Canada by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC).  Attempts to use the ECCC NBS calculations to replicate published Lake MH water levels since 2000 proved futile.  Since these data do not reproduce past water levels, how can they be trusted to predict future levels?

2) The Residuals Method calculates NBS as the water volume caused by the month-over-month lake level change, less the flows in, plus the flows out. Since the water level measurements are very accurate, this method is as accurate as the flow estimates. The Residuals Method is used by the USACE and the Great Lakes Coordinating Committee on Hydraulics (members: USACE, GLERL, and ECCC) and is the basis of their Regulation and Routing Model. The Residuals Method is relied upon for accurate month-to-month NBS calculations.

In summary, the Components Method is worthy of more research funding, which its proponents are vying for. The Residuals Method is now valid for all the lakes.  Of special interest is the case of Lake MH: historically the Residuals Method NBS for MH was highly questionable, because the St. Clair River (SCR) flow was  estimated based on only a number of stage-fall equations that needed re-calibration each time the bottom depth changed, and this re-calibration was seldom done even though the SCR conveyance capacity kept changing.  In recent years, an accurate Acoustic Doppler flow measurement was installed which, coupled with multiple annual boat surveys, allows for accurate SCR flow measurements. 

In 2020, when this flow meter reported readings in excess of the 1986 all-time record high water flow, GBGLF challenged USACE and the US Geological Survey (USGS), who operate the meter, to prove the accuracy of their measurements. Over the summer months, GBGLF worked with the staff from both agencies and reviewed equipment accuracy and calibration procedures in detail. The result was that, with the flow meter now installed in a new location, not only were the flow readings accurate but also the annual boat survey procedure accurately updated the cross-sectional area. This approach has rendered the SCR flow measurements quite accurate.  As a result, the Lake MH Residuals Method NBS is also accurate. To illustrate the extent of our current extreme high-water supplies, the SCR flow in November 2020 was 7,200 cubic meters per second (cms), while during the 1986 record high water the maximum flow was only 6,700 cms.  GBGLF used the Residuals Method NBS in a hydraulic model to explain Lake MH water levels since 2000. This model detected the onset of riverbed erosion in the St. Clair, which was likely caused by the extremely high SCR flows, just as occurred in 1986. The USACE has confirmed that they also may have detected the start of erosion.

GBGLF is a founding member of Restore Our Water International (ROWI) (a group of mostly US shoreline organizations). Last June, ROWI filed a formal Freedom of Information request with USACE for the Great Lakes Coordinating Committee’s minutes. (We want to see what evidence, if any, there is of their meeting the balancing requirement for Lake Superior versus Lakes MH/GB interests.) That request has yet to be complied with, even though there is legal 30-day time limit to fulfil such a request.

How can the extreme IJC-defined “crisis” high water levels on MHGB be alleviated?

  1. Reduce the Long Lac and Ogoki diversions into Lake Superior – they contribute some 11cm (4 inches) to MH level.
  2. Reduce the outflow from Lake Superior.  There appear to be grounds for reviewing the lake balancing algorithm in Regulation Plan 2012, which is supposed to calculate discharges that keep both Lake Superior and MH at about the same distance from their respective long-term averages, which currently is not the case. This balancing has not been happening. Regulation Plan 2012 needs to be reviewed with public participation and oversight, since it appears to assume a stable St. Clair River conveyance capacity, which is not the case. Since the hard rock rubble was removed during the 1960s navigation dredging, mobile sediments of soft clay and sand have now been exposed.
  3. The outflow via the Chicago diversion could be increased.

The Long Lac and Ogoki Diversions:

In 1940, Canada proposed to the US that hydro power be increased to aid WW II production, by diverting 140 cms (cubic meters per second) of water from the James Bay watershed into Lake Superior via dams at Long Lac and Ogoki River. This extra water would generate power at hydro generators located on the Nipigon, St. Marys, Niagara and St. Lawrence rivers. The US and Canada exchanged a set of diplomatic notes.  However, the diversions were never ratified by the US Senate. (Are they really legal then?)  After WW II, the Long Lac and Ogoki diversions were never rescinded, and instead their management was transferred to Ontario Power Generation (OPG). It has operated these diversions it to suit its power generation needs, without any regard for impacts to the Great Lakes basin. The diversion “flows” have grown from the originally authorised 140 cms to a nominal 160 with a maximum of 500 recorded in 1964.

These diversions were reduced in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s during high levels on MH/GB. Only the Ontario Minister of Natural Resources has the authority to reduce these diversions. Many people have sent messages to Minister Yakabuski and they all have received form email messages back saying that, even if he did reduce the diversions, it would provide a reduction of only a few centimeters in MHGB levels. Our engineer, Bill Bialkowski has done the calculations: a reduction would increase the flows in the Albany River back up to James Bay by only about 4% (not likely enough to cause flooding) BUT it would reduce our levels by 11 cm or 4 inches in a few years. That would provide significant relief especially along low-slope sand beaches. Every centimeter counts when the levels are this high. Stop hiding behind climate change and COVID-19, Minister Yakabuski! Do the right thing by issuing your order to temporarily reduce the Long Lac and Ogoki diversions in July and August after the spring runoff!

What do future lake levels look like?

It is very likely that low water will return, as Baird Report III predicts, by about 2030.  We know from past studies that the conveyance of SCR has increased by some 16% since 1900.  The IJC has documented that, during low water supplies, this conveyance increase has lowered MH levels by 50 cm (20 inches). Now, preliminary USACE bathymetric St. Clair River data suggest erosion of the riverbed may have started again; hence this amount of lowering is probably an understatement.
Even though the IJC is theoretically committed to ensuring that conveyance capacity increases due to the 1960s navigation dredging be compensated, the St. Clair River has never been compensated. (The Detroit River has been compensated.)

It looks like, by 2030 or so, we are in for water levels even lower than in 2000 to 2013. What could and should be done to alleviate low water levels for MH/GB?

The IJC’s International Upper Great Lakes Study recommended that, in spite of the agreed-upon water level lowering, nothing be done to the St. Clair River.  It was during the IJC’s public review sessions of this report in 2012 that we, the public, persuaded the IJC to change its mind.  This resulted in the 2013 IJC Advice to Governments that flexible structures in the SCR should be evaluated. These structures were to raise water levels only during low water and were not to impact high water levels in any way.  For this reason, the hydrofoil gates designed by our engineer were presented as a possible solution. The design is based on an extremely low drag coefficient when the gates are lowered during high water (i.e. almost zero resistance to the SCR flows), and an extremely high drag coefficient when they are raised during low water. Hydraulic modeling studies have confirmed the ability of a series of these gates to raise low water up by possible 50 cm. This flexible solution is in sharp contrast to GBF’s AECOM Study which, among other things, has proposed building a synthetic island at the head of the SCR. What is the drag coefficient of an island?

The hydrofoil gate design (by our hydraulic engineer Bill Bialkowski) below meets the IJC’s 2015 recommendations to government for structures that would not exacerbate high flow conditions. Since we are coming to the end of a high cycle and USACE has determined that the St. Clair River may have begun eroding again, the time for detailed designed flexible measures and securing funding for this project is NOW. The lag time for government funding and implementation will be very significant given COVID distractions. The health of our Bay is at stake here.

There are ways to reduce the extreme range of levels for Lakes Michigan/Huron/Georgian Bay. BUT we need ALL Georgian Bay organizations and neighbouring American ones on the same page. Putting out misleading information publicly does not help.

Our organization has raised the funds for this important water levels research (including published reports by Prof. Pat Chow-Fraser on the impacts of the extreme levels on Georgian Bay’s highest quality, most diverse and extensive wetlands found anywhere in the Great Lakes).

Here’s how you can help with our research:

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