Water Levels

A Middle Great Lakes Dilemma

Water is a necessity for life, and the Great Lakes are the largest fresh water ecosystem on the planet. As water levels vary in the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence drainage basin, so does the quantity of water on which the 40 million people and the 3,500 species of plants and animals depend for their wellbeing. The economy of the region is nearly $5 trillion dollars annually – nearly a third of the combined American and Canadian economies. Water levels directly impact access to drinking water, water for irrigation and industry, commercial navigation, hydro power generation, and recreational boating. Water levels determine the health of the ecosystem and the wetlands which sustain the marine species. Water levels also determine what damage occurs to shoreline properties. High water levels cause not only flooding but also shoreline erosion, which in turn can cause houses built on high bluffs to topple into the water. Low water levels can cripple shipping, reduce hydro generation, stop boating activity, disrupt drinking water supply, and cause wetlands to dry up, leading to fish and birds dying-off. Low water can also allow invasive plants to take over the shoreline and noxious algae to develop in isolated bays.

Structural Controls that can affect lake Michigan-Huron Water Levels

Figure 1 Great Lakes Basin showing location of diversions, and existing and proposed control structures

Humans have been modifying the Great Lakes for nearly two centuries. By 1900 shipping locks at Sault Marie and Welland were well established and ship navigation extended between Lakes Ontario and Superior; hydro generation was established at Niagara and Sault St. Marie; sand and gravel were being mined from the St. Clair River for steel production and road construction. Also in 1900 the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal – or Chicago Diversion – was built diverting water from Lake Michigan out of the basin to the Mississippi River system.

In 1909 the US and Canadian Governments signed the Boundary Waters Treaty and then formed the International Joint Commission (IJC) to properly manage these shared waters. In 1914 a set of control gates was constructed on the St. Marys River, which together with the hydro power facilities enabled control of the water discharge from Lake Superior and direct control of Lake Superior’s water level. This set of controls impacted the level of Lake Michigan-Huron, which lacked any form of control. Navigation channels, most significantly those on the St. Clair River, were deepened to 20 feet by 1920 and to 25 feet in 1933. In 1940 water from the James Bay drainage basin was diverted into Lake Superior at Long Lac and Ogoki in order to increase hydro power generation for wartime production. Between 1954 and 1962 the St. Lawrence Seaway was built, and all channels were deepened again to provide a 27-foot navigation depth from the Atlantic Ocean to Duluth at the head of Lake Superior. The Moses-Saunders Dam was built at Cornwall and Messina to control the level of Lake Ontario and generate hydro power. All of this work was carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and authorized by acts of the U.S. Congress. Canada provided approval and funding.

After the 1933 and 1962 channel deepening, the accepted hydraulic procedure was to be followed to compensate for the expanded channel capacity and the lowering of upstream lakes. The accepted practice was to install measures to reduce the channel capacity, slow the water flow, and raise the upstream lakes back to their historical levels. Accordingly, the authorization to deepen the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers included the post-deepening construction of compensating measures in both channels. Compensating dykes were designed and built in the Detroit River. These reduced the Detroit River’s conveyance capacity and raised the level of Lake St. Clair to historical values. Compensating sills were designed for the St. Clair River to restore its conveyance capacity to its normal level and thereby raise the level of Lake Michigan-Huron to historical values also. These sills were designed to compensate the level of Lake Michigan-Huron by some 10 inches, even though the IJC had acknowledged that the channel deepening had lowered that level by 16 inches.

However, just as construction of these sills started, the drainage basin received record precipitation, and water levels began to rise. They continued to go up until in 1986 they crested at an unprecedented high level for Lake Michigan-Huron. The 1986 high-water record set a new bench mark for the ‘terror of high water’. Flooding occurred during extreme storms, and massive erosion of beaches and high bluffs occurred, especially along the southern shores of Lake Michigan. The people living there vividly remember these events and have formed politically active opposition groups, vowing to prevent any form of low-water compensating measures in the St. Clair River that might under any circumstances raise water levels even higher. By 1980 the funding for the St. Clair River sills project was rescinded and the project, while still ‘on the books’, was forgotten.


Figure 2 water levels recorded on Lakes Michigan-Huron, St. Clair and Erie showing 1986 high water as well as prolonged low water in 1998 to 2003


Figure 3 water levels recorded on Lakes Superior and Ontario

The high water of 1986 triggered a series of water-level studies, which culminated in the IJC’s 1993 Level Reference Study – the largest study ever conducted on the Great Lakes. This study considered the concept of Multi-Lake Regulation (MLR) – essentially controlling the discharge from each of the Great Lakes, not just Superior and Ontario. For the St. Clair, Detroit and Niagara Rivers this required ensuring that each channel was enlarged to provide a conveyance capacity capable of handling the worst anticipated high-water condition, after which an entire set of control structures would be needed to control the flow over the full range of levels from very low to very high. Although no government action resulted from this study, the recommendations in Annex 6 for anticipating and mitigating both extreme highs and extreme lows of Great Lakes water levels were valid at the time and would form the basis of best practices today.


Figure 4 showing Lake Michigan-Huron 1993 IJC Crisis Water Levels. Note extreme 1986 high water and extreme low water from 1998 to 2013

Annex 6 of the 1993 Level Reference Study defined ‘Crisis Water Levels’, both high and low, for each lake, as well as “Crisis Condition Response Measures” for all of the lakes with regard to both high-water and low-water crises. For Lake Michigan-Huron the Crisis High water level was set at 177.14 metres above sea level. During the 1986 high-water extreme it was exceeded by 0.36 m or 14 inches. The extremely high water level of 2019 is breaking records on several of the Great Lakes and causing both great damage and increased public awareness of the impacts of extremes in water levels. The time is ripe for governments to act on the recommendations in Annex 6.

In 1998, an El Niño year caused abnormally low water supply to the basin, and water levels dropped. Past low water-level episodes had never lasted longer than five years. The drop in water level on Lake Michigan-Huron was by 82 cm (32 inches) and it then hovered around 176 metres above sea level (ASL) for the next fifteen years. 176.0 m ASL is defined as ‘Chart Datum’ – the lowest expected level on navigation charts and the reference for depth readings shown on the charts. The IJC’s 1993 Level Reference Study had defined the Low Water Crisis level for Lake Michigan-Huron as 176.0 m. It defined a range of crisis response measures that should have been applied at higher levels in order to prevent the level from dropping below 176 m.

By 2003, five years after the drop, wetlands on Georgian Bay were drying up, and fish were dying. Mary Muter, then a Director of the Georgian Bay Association, assembled a group of engineers with hydraulic modelling skills to attempt to understand the cause of this prolonged low water-level period. Access to U.S. Army water-level and flow data enabled the group to develop a rudimentary ‘routing model’ that accounts for the movement of water through the drainage basin from lake to lake. Although not conclusive, this model did shine a spotlight on the St. Clair River, where the behaviour could not be adequately explained. To explore the topic further, Bill Bialkowski, who had extensive industrial experience in modeling of hydraulic systems, devised a hypothetical compensation scheme. In early 2004, Mary arranged to have us present these ideas to the water-levels professional staff at Environment Canada, including Mr. David Fay, the lead hydraulics engineer for the Coordinating Committee on Great Lakes Basic Hydraulic and Hydrologic Data (CCGLBHH), which includes staff from Environment Canada, NOAA and the USACE. We were congratulated on some good hydraulic modeling but told in no uncertain terms that that they – the professional staff together with their American counterpart in the USACE – were the ones who looked after these matters, and we the public need not worry. It became clear that a professional study was needed to shed further light, and W. F. Baird and Associates Coastal Engineers Ltd., a world-renowned hydrological consulting firm, was retained to carry out a study.

In 2004 the Baird Report concluded that while the IJC had accounted for a 16-inch lowering of Lake Michigan-Huron by 1962 when the 27-foot deepening was completed, that by 2003 the lake had been lowered an additional 23 cm or 9 inches because of the erosion that had occurred in the St. Clair River after 1962, which had enlarged the river’s conveyance capacity by 10%. This erosion had never been detected by government agencies. In addition the Baird Report concluded that the U.S. Army Corps’ flow estimates of the river were all skewed, since their calculation had assumed that the St. Clair River’s conveyance capacity was static, while in fact the erosion had enlarged it. The Baird study used St. Clair River bathymetry (depth) data from 1971 and 2000 and a two-dimensional (2-D) hydraulic model of the river to draw conclusions. The Baird Report was instrumental in leading the IJC to admit that there was a need to fully investigate the alleged erosion of the St. Clair River and to state that this would be done by the upcoming International Upper Great Lakes Study (IUGLS).

The International Upper Great Lakes Study (IUGLS) started work in 2007 with two objectives: 1) to prove or disprove the alleged erosion and increased conveyance capacity of the St. Clair River and 2) to update the Regulation Plan for the Lake Superior Discharge to Lake Huron. The U.S. Chair of the Study Board was dismissive of St. Clair erosion allegations and was reluctant to pursue this aspect of the study. He was heard to say “Nothing will ever be done in the St. Clair River in my lifetime”. The Baird Study results were presented to him and the Study Board, at which time Baird recommended that a three-dimensional (3-D) hydraulic model of the river should be used to more accurately capture its many twists, turns and eddies, as opposed to the 2-D model used by Baird. The IUGLS American Co-chair refused to consider a 3-D model, and all work was done using 2-D models. In 2009, the St. Clair River part of the IUGLS was completed and the results were presented. The study confirmed that erosion of the St. Clair River had occurred after 1962, but stated that it was far less serious than alleged by Baird. The conveyance capacity had expanded by only 5.8%, not 10%, and as a result the level of Lake Michigan-Huron had declined by only 10 to 12 cm (about 4 inches) as a result, not by the 23cm or 9 inches claimed by Baird. The report then recommended that: “Remedial measures not be undertaken in the St. Clair River at this time”.

Recent Background

Public hearings were held by the IUGLS Board in June 2009 to explain the results of the Study and allow public comment. At the meeting held in Midland, Ontario, in June 2009, Bill Bialkowski stood up and challenged the study’s conclusion that the erosion had caused only a 5.8% expansion of the conveyance capacity. Bill made this request: “Would the Study Board share the USACE water level and flow data as well as the official hydraulic discharge equations for each of the connecting channels, so that the results can be substantiated by independent modeling analysis?” The Board considered the request briefly and agreed to provide Bill with the data. The data did arrive, and the hydraulic equations were provided by David Fay, along with a very thorough, useful briefing on their effective use. Of particular interest, however, was the fact that St. Clair River flow data after 1986 were missing. There was an explanatory note saying that these data would be supplied after the Study Board and the USACE considered how to compensate for the known conveyance expansion. In fact the St. Clair flow data were finally reconciled by the USACE and Environment Canada, based on a flow calibration study conducted by David Fay in 2010. The revised data became available in 2011, and these data allowed Bill Bialkowski to employ a powerful, modern control algorithm together with David Fay’s hydraulic discharge equations to reconstruct the St. Clair River’s conveyance capacity year-to-year from 1910 to the present. With this advance in the hydraulic routing model, it became possible for the model to match USACE’s recorded levels and flow almost exactly, and made it possible to simulate the potential impact of a wide range of hypothetical compensating measures such as sills, gates or changes to water diversions. Bill submitted a report to the Study Board showing that the conveyance capacity change, based on the data, was greater than 5.8% and closer to 10%.

In 2011, the IJC insisted that the IUGLS also study the option of restoring the level of Lake Michigan-Huron by 0, 10, 25, 40 and 50 cm by installing structures in the St. Clair River. This work was carried out using the official routing model of the Coordinating Committee on Great Lakes Basic Hydraulics and Hydrology (CCGLBHH) and David Fay’s discharge equation. The stated water level changes would be achieved by adding structures that effectively raised the river-bottom elevation parameter in the Fay equation. The Study Board issued its report: “Options for Restoring Lake Michigan-Huron Water Levels: An Exploratory Analysis” in June 2011. It was easy for Bill to review this report, because his own routing model was almost identical and could produce results identical to those of the Study’s model.

M-H Level History & Model

Figure 5 Bill’s variable conveyance routing model showing Lake MH water levels compared to USACE water level data (1900 to Jan 2017). Had the model calculated perfect results for each of the 1400 months between 1900 and 2017, for MH water level data, no red would be visible, as each point would be covered with blue.

The report claimed very alarming negative impacts as far downstream as the Port of Montreal as soon as the structures would be installed in the St. Clair River. These shocking impacts would undoubtedly alarm the downstream interests, who would fear the prospect of compensation measures in the St. Clair River. Strangely, the stated claims of the Study Board did not agree with the graphical results from their own routing model, which showed much gentler impacts downstream. Bill submitted a report to the U.S. Study Board Co-chair, pointing out the fundamental error – a total disconnect between the “gentle downstream impacts” graphics and the “highly negative downstream impacts” conclusion. There was an immediate e-mail response in which the U.S. Co-Chair blamed his modeler. However the report itself was not changed. Bill’s report included a proposal to employ hydrokinetic turbines in the Upper St. Clair River, and the routing model was used to illustrate that a staged installation of such flexible compensation measures there not only achieved level restoration of Lake Michigan-Huron smoothly but also produced negligible impacts downstream on Lakes St. Clair, Erie, and Ontario as well as the Port of Montreal.

In 2012 the final IUGLS report was submitted still recommending ‘DO NOTHING’ in the St. Clair River. The IJC held public hearings. At the Midland, Ontario, meeting on July 16, 2012, 600 people showed up, more than the room could hold, and many were wearing blue “Restore our Water” T-shirts. The four IJC Commissioners were overwhelmed. Both Mary and Bill made submissions pointing out the feasibility of installing flexible structures in the St. Clair River that could safely raise Michigan-Huron water levels by up to 50 cm (20 inches). However should the water levels ever come close to Crisis High levels, the structures would be lowered, hence ensuring that high water levels would not be exacerbated.

The meeting ended with Canadian Commissioner Lyall Knott standing up and saying “We hear you – Restore our water – Restore our water NOW”.

On April 15, 2013, the IJC issued the following advice to governments: “The Commission recommends that the Governments undertake further investigation of structural options to restore water levels in Lake Michigan-Huron by 13 to 25 cm (about 5 to 10 in). … The Commission encourages the Governments to focus on an option that would not result in a permanent restoration change that could exacerbate future high water levels, but rather one that could primarily provide relief during low water periods.”

It is very likely that this advice came directly from our recommendation made earlier.

In 2013, Mary and her group travelled to Bay City, Michigan. There, over the course of a few meetings, a new bi-national organization was born – Restore Our Water International (ROWI). Roger Gauthier, a retired USACE hydrologist was appointed Chair, and Mary became Vice-Chair. Roger was involved directly in the 1993 IJC Level Reference Study. With Rogers’s guidance and Bill’s modeling a comprehensive approach to addressing both high and low water crises was evolved. The excessively high water is addressed using the IJC’s own recommendation to cut back on the Long Lac-Ogoki Diversion into the basin, and to increase the Chicago Diversion out of the basin – at the same time during the winter months to deploy ice booms in the St. Clair River to lessen or prevent the ice jams that slow the flow. Low-water crises would be handled by flexible structures in the Upper St. Clair River. We have moved off turbines because of the need to ensure that, when the structures are no longer needed or wanted, their flow drag must be reduced to almost nothing. Turbines that are not functioning continue to have a flow drag. The most promising solution is an airplane-wing-like structure for a completely flexible installation.

Sound Scientific Solution, Hydrofoill Gates

Scientifically sound, flexible solution to the excess flow of water through the St. Clair River designed by one of our experts and Scientific Advisor. Hydrofoil gate concept showing very high drag when gates are vertical and water is held back, and very low drag when gates are flat and high water requires no obstruction.

Hydrofoil Gates in Upper St. Clair River

Figure 7 Hydrofoil gate design concept three-view diagrams with gates raised and flat

With all of these measures coordinated around the IJC’s 1993 Study’s Crisis Levels, it would have been possible to lower the 1986 high-water extreme by 8 inches (23 cm), while during the prolonged low-water crisis that existed from 1999 to 2013 it would have been possible to raise water levels by 20 inches (50 cm).


Figure 8 shows the variable conveyance routing model results if hydrofoil gates were in the up position as long as the water levels stayed below the ‘Action High’ level of 176.78 m. Then the prolonged extreme low water would have been raised by 50 cm (20 inches). When the level exceeded 176.78, the gates would have been lowered; the long Lac & Ogoki diversion would have been reduced, the Chicago diversion would have been increased, and ice booms would have been deployed in winter months. Then, the 1986 extreme high water would have been reduced by 23 cm (8 inches). This exactly matches the IJC recommendations to governments.

ROWI briefed the USACE and the IJC on these concepts, and had a high level of acceptance. ROWI has also briefed a group at the southern end of Lake Michigan with mixed results.

Current Challenges

The problem is that the IJC can only make recommendation to governments. Four years after the Commissioners’ 2013 recommendations regarding the St. Clair River were made, the Canadian Government has finally recommended support, while the U.S Government has not even acknowledged them. The USACE Detroit District office is ready and willing to carry out a feasibility study on them, but they have no funding and have been ordered to ‘stand down’. So the only engineered solution available is the 1970 sill design, which is known to raise levels by 10 inches during both low and high levels. It is unacceptable. The USACE reports to the President of the USA via the Secretary of the Army. The IJC is a bi-national body and is directed by the Secretary of State in the USA, and by the Minister of Foreign and Global Affairs in Canada. These departments run their respective country’s foreign policy, and in the swirl of world events, the St. Clair River is never very high on the agenda. ROWI has made numerous presentations in Washington to try to reach the right people. Now the new Georgian Bay Great Lakes Foundation of the Huronia Community Foundation is charged with that task and with the challenge of raising the funds to do so.


The Georgian Bay Great Lakes Foundation must educate the key officials in Washington and the new IJC Commissioners, and continue information-sharing efforts in Ottawa and at Queen’s Park with regard to the St. Clair River issue and its solution. In the USA that means hiring the prestigious law firm in Washington that facilitates such entrée into the right offices. GBGLF’s Mary Muter from Ontario and ROWI’s Roger Gauthier from Michigan have the essential knowledge and expertise to capitalise on such visits as a bi-national team. The issue is that the monthly retainer fee of such a Washington law firm is understandably high. In addition travel costs in both Canada and the USA can add up.

Doing Your Part

Please donate generously to this essential undertaking to protect the future of Lake Michigan-Huron together with Georgian Bay and, through stabilising their water level fluctuations, to ensure the stability of the entire Great Lakes system. Send your cheque to Huronia Community Foundation P.O. Box 324 Midland, ON L4R 4L1, with “for Georgian Bay Great Lakes Foundation” in the notation section.

Make a secure online donation at:  https://www.huroniacommunityfoundation.com/donate-now/form/?fund=138

Article by Bill Bialkowski, Director, Georgian Bay Great Lakes Foundation, a member of the federally recognized charity Huronia Community Foundation