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Regulation not the answer for low water levels, IJC tells council

‘Regulation cannot prevent extreme high or low water events from occurring,’ IJC chair summarized, noting land use management is the best strategy
Pierre Béland, Canadian section chair of the International Joint Commission (IJC) presented a thorough explanation to Tiny council of Great Lakes dam regulations pertaining to Georgian Bay low water levels, citing the years of 2017 to 2019 as the highest precipitation on record for the lakes.

It was a dam good information session for Tiny council.

Members of the International Joint Commission (IJC) and International Lake Superior Board of Control (ILSBC) appeared before Tiny council to give a presentation on Georgian Bay and Upper Great Lakes water levels at a recent committee of the whole meeting.

Pierre Béland, Canadian section chair of the IJC, was the main spokesperson on the day. He was joined by IJC engineering advisor Erika Klyszejko, and regulation representative for the ILSBC, Jamie Ferguson.

“Of course the upper Great Lakes have sustained very high levels, especially in the last two or three years,” Béland began. “Conditions have changed recently on Lake Ontario, but the upper lakes - specifically Huron, Michigan and Georgian Bay - are still pretty high, although things have improved in the last couple of months. 

“And we recognize that during those years, water levels have resulted in widespread suffering on the Great Lakes,” he added.

The reason for the IJC’s presentation was in response to a request put forward by Tiny council earlier this year, inviting the bi-national independent advisory organization to answer the question of whether or not they have the ability to make a difference in controlling local water levels.

The IJC spoke on five topics during their hour-long presentation: the role of the IJC; the hydrology of Georgian Bay and the upper Great Lakes; limits of regulation; current and forecasted conditions; and shoreline resiliency. These were introduced before council added questions to further the discussion.

Béland first described the IJC’s two main control stations, one at St. Marys River on Lake Superior, and the other along the Upper St. Lawrence River; these work to balance the overall water supply within the Great Lakes through the calculations of data for all water levels. He then noted a chart of the Great Lakes precipitation and water levels.

“You see the precipitation (since 1895) has been increasing,” Béland described, “and since 1995 it’s been on the increase. And the last three years (2017 to 2019); this is the highest precipitation that there has ever been in over 100 years.”

“Lake Michigan-Huron and Georgian Bay have an enormous drainage basin,” said Béland. “Because of the size of this basin, water levels fluctuate more to precipitation than in response to human regulated outflows of Lake Superior.”

Béland spoke extensively about the net basin supply (NBS), calculated as equalling precipitation plus runoff minus evaporation. He also noted that the NBS is the “most significant driver of water level change” yet can vary greatly with months of unpredictability.

Describing the difference between a cold, dry winter evaporation and a warm, wet spring thaw, Béland cited a possible 30-cm range of water levels. By comparison, Lake Superior’s outflow to Lakes Michigan-Huron only amount to between three to eight centimetres, which isn’t enough to directly overtake the force of nature.

“So in summary, regulation of outflow has very limited effect on lakewater levels, because the control over Lake Superior is simply unable to respond to the full range of the natural supply,” Béland explained.

Béland warned of too much tampering outside the natural element.

“We could physically manage Lake Superior outflows so as to reduce the extremes on Lake Michigan-Huron, but this has been shown that you could have a much larger effect on Lake Superior levels, causing much more severe flooding or low levels on that lake than what would occur naturally; which would be going counter to the boundary waters treaty requirements.

“Furthermore, if outflows from Lake Superior get too high, Sault Harbour and Whitefish Island can flood. Conversely, low outflows would affect fish spawning habitat, hydro power production, commercial navigation, and can expose shoals,” Béland described.

Twice in the IJC presentation was the mention of a Severn Sound Environmental Association (SSEA) citation brought up, from their letter to Tiny council earlier this year. The SSEA recommended that structures be built away from shorelines and green infrastructure stabilize shorelines where necessary.

The citation echoed the IJC’s message.

“IJC studies in the past have shown that if the control structure at the outlet of Lake Superior were regulated for the sole purpose of maintaining Lakes Michigan-Huron levels within a preferred range of levels, the record-setting high levels that you have experienced on Lake Huron could not have been avoided," said Béland.

“Regulation cannot prevent extreme high or low water events from occurring,” Béland stated definitively. 

A forecast chart displayed predictions for the next six months of water levels, but Béland cautioned not to rely too heavily on the “cone of uncertainty.” Record setting levels had been set constantly in recent years, with 2020 as one of the highest on record.

“Presently, I believe we are about 44 centimetres above average, but in comparison to last year this is quite an improvement; we are 41 centimetres lower than the regular high levels that we’ve seen last year,” said Béland.

Repeatedly throughout the presentation and discussion, Béland brought up how reliant the IJC is on facts and science in making their decisions.  

“We could not carry out our work and meet our responsibilities,” Béland explained, “without the support of hundreds of experts from both countries who sit on our various boards.”

In conclusion, Béland offered a definitive statement. 

“In its past studies,” said Béland, “the IJC, after considering various concepts for further regulation in the upper Great Lakes, has concluded that regulation is not an effective means of reducing the impacts caused by fluctuating water levels. Instead, the IJC has recommended to governments that they aggressively promote land use management, and as a principal component of its strategy to reduce the impacts of fluctuating water levels."

Questions to council opened up with Coun. Tony Mintoff asking the IJC about a possible bottleneck of conveyance along the St. Marys River outflow as a result of dredging 60 years ago, with the possibility of reexamining and adjusting the issue.

Béland responded that there had been no reports of impediment of flow through clogging or other issues which would require such reexamination; in addition, improving water flow along that river would move more water to Lake Erie ultimately, adding that “moving water downstream is not necessarily profitable to everyone.”

Engineering advisor Klyszejko noted that any time a channel is modified, the impact will be felt downstream, including a risk of lower lows during periods of low waters. As such, the pros and cons must be weighed accordingly. 

Mintoff thanked the scientists for their explanation as a layman, noting that Lakes Michigan-Huron bore “an unreasonable amount of the brunt of this balancing act” for the Great Lakes, causing millions of dollars in damage.

“But that’s of little comfort to people who are experiencing the problem now given the location of their residence and buildings as it relates to the shorelines,” said Mintoff.

Béland expressed sympathy, and reminded Mintoff that Lakes Michigan-Huron are controlled by NBS, and that “these are natural systems, they are huge, and we have to live with them. They cannot be modified to the extent that everyone would have the ideal level."

Mayor George Cornell brought up the possibility of weirs in the St. Clair River, which the IJC explained would be cost prohibitive and only be effective in normal times without the extremes recently experienced.

Mintoff also asked about reversing the diversions of Long Lac and Ogoki dams, which Béland replied would only adjust the water levels by roughly five centimetres in Georgian Bay over a two-year span, nowhere near the 40 centimetres for this year alone as explained earlier.

Coun. Gibb Wishart was impressed with the IJC presentation, expressing hope that professionals involved along the various groups with the Georgian Bay shorelines could work together as one.

Archives of council meetings are available to view on Tiny township’s YouTube channel.

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Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Derek Howard covers Midland and Penetanguishene area civic issues under the Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the Government of Canada.
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