Water Draining Out of Lakes Huron and Michigan

TORONTO, Ontario, Canada, February 4, 2005 (ENS) - The water levels in lakes Michigan and Huron are dropping rapidly right under the noses of the national and internetional agencies tasked with monitoring the Great Lakes, finds a new engineering report commissioned by the Georgian Bay Association, a Canadian nonprofit organization.

"In 1962, a shipping channel was dredged out of the St. Clair River that effectively opened a bigger drain hole in the Great Lakes," said John Pepperell, president of Georgian Bay Association, which coordinated the six month long study by W.F. Baird & Associates Coastal Engineers.

"Everyone knew about the one time loss of water that was caused when that channel was first opened. However, we have now discovered that ongoing erosion is making the outlet from Lake Huron larger, allowing water to leave faster than had been recognized," Pepperell said.


Dredging on the St. Clair River (Photo courtesy Friends of the St. Clair)
The Baird report blames shoreline alteration, historical aggregate riverbed mining, and navigation dredging for the ongoing erosion at the bottom of the St. Clair River that has resulted in the permanent and continuing lowering of the two lakes.

The amount of water permanently withdrawn from the total surface of lakes Michigan and Huron is close to 80 centimeters (32 inches), the Baird report states. That is the equivalent of 28 times the volume of water in Lake St. Clair or one-quarter the volume of water in Lake Erie.

"The recent riverbed erosion is unprecedented, even on a geologic time scale," said Rob Nairn, author of the report. "It has led to a significant lowering of lakes Michigan and Huron with corresponding implications for the economy and environment."

According to the report, released last week, the channel is eroding and is now over 60 feet deep at critical sections near the outflow, while only 30 feet of depth is required for navigation.

Pepperell said that "without implementation of corrective measures, this drop represents an irreversible and ongoing decline in the long-term average levels of lakes Michigan and Huron."

W.F. Baird & Associates found that declines in actual water levels since the mid-1800s in the two lakes are double the latest International Joint Commission (IJC) estimates. This independent binational organization was established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 between the United States and Canada to prevent and resolve disputes relating to the use and quality of boundary waters such as the Great Lakes.

Lower lake levels impact the amount of cargo that ships can transport through the lakes, the access and value of property along the shores, and the quantity and quality of habitat for wildlife.

For two generations the continuing decline resulting in permanent withdrawals has gone undetected by the U.S. and Canadian governments and the agencies charged with monitoring Great Lakes water levels - the IJC, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Environment Canada.


Lake Huron shoreline (Photo courtesy U.S. EPA)
In part, the problem was masked by the cyclical high water levels that dominated from the mid-1970s, through the 1980s and into the 1990s and may be related to government cutbacks in funding for the important monitoring of the finite resource we have in Lakes Michigan/Huron.

"This report is a wake-up call," said Georgian Baykeeper Mary Muter. "In recent years we have had a significant number of wetlands dry up on Georgian Bay, and the aquatic life forced out onto steep granite shorelines among the 30,000 islands cannot survive. Continued low water levels will threaten an already declining fishery."

"We need to protect the ecology and economy of this region, and we’re asking the Canadian and U.S. governments to take appropriate action and stop the water loss from our lakes," Muter said.

On January 7, the government of Canada made a submission to the Council of Great Lakes Governors, which includes Ontario and Quebec, encouraging the Great Lakes states and provinces to provide the same level of protection of water in the Great Lakes St. Lawrence basin as that already provided by Canada, Ontario and Quebec.

The submission is in response to the proposed Great Lakes Charter Annex implementing agreements currently being negotiated by the Great Lakes states and provinces. Canadian federal law prohibits out-of-basin transfers of boundary waters in bulk, a ban Environment Minister Stéphane Dion says the government is committed to keeping in place.

"We welcome the efforts of the states and provinces to develop improved processes for managing the waters of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River," Dion said. "However, after reviewing the draft agreements, consulting with our provincial partners and listening to the concerns of Canadians, we believe that the proposed agreements do not provide a sufficient degree of protection to these critically important waters and require strengthening."

The Great Lakes Charter is a non-binding understanding among the 10 parties that commits them to five principles - integrity of the Great Lakes basin, cooperation among jurisdictions, protection of the water resources of the Great Lakes, prior notice and consultation, and cooperative programs and practices.

The report comes at a time when the IJC is undertaking a study of the Lower Great Lakes and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Transport Canada are studying the future prospects for Great Lakes commercial navigation. The government agencies will now have to re-calculate the math for outflows and net basin supply numbers - precipitation, runoff minus evaporation, diversions and outflow.


Lake Michigan beach, Empire, Michigan (Photo courtesy Michigan Travel Bureau)
"This report serves as a cautionary tale to those who want to tinker with our Great Lakes," said Tim Eder, the National Wildlife Federation’s director of water resources. "You can’t fool Mother Nature. We can’t keep dredging deeper channels for navigation without serious repercussions for the people and wildlife who depend on Great Lakes waters."

"The Great Lakes are more than simply a navigation corridor, and the time has come for the management of the lakes to reflect that," said Jennifer Nalbone, habitat and biodiversity coordinator for Great Lakes United, a bi-national environmental organization. "We have to stop treating the Great Lakes as though they can be literally molded to fit our short term economic desires. We need a transportation system that fits within the physical confines of the Great Lakes ecosystem, not vice versa."

The study takes into account other factors which influence lake levels, including fluctuations in precipitation and the effects of glacial rebound - the rise of large masses of land that were depressed by the huge weight of ice sheets during the last ice age.

Still, when all those factors are taken into consideration, the Baird study shows that levels in lakes Michigan and Huron have declined more than can be attributed to any factor other than erosion of the St. Clair riverbed.

Lakes Superior and Ontario have control structures to manage lake levels under a variety of climate conditions. There are no such control structures for Lakes Michigan and Huron. Once the water is gone, there is no way to return it to the lakes, the conservationists say.

"Today, we have sophisticated methods of monitoring available but this study clearly shows the need and importance of using and making those tools available," said Cheryl Mendoza, from Lake Michigan Federation. "At a time when Canada and the United States are negotiating how to monitor and regulate Great Lakes water usage, we are witnessing a constant and large-scale permanent loss of water under the noses of both governments."