Water levels reaching critical point for Great Lakes Huron and Michigan

Since the summer my office has seen one issue pop up consistently, week to week and month to month -  the low water levels in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.  I have received, letters, e-mails, phone calls and a large petition from Manitoulin Island on the subject.  People’s concerns range from shoreline habitat degradation to the protection of their own structures like docks and boat ramps. The International Joint Commission (IJC) met on Manitoulin Island last summer and was seized with the problem and a number of possible explanations for the phenomenon.  At least one of these could be addressed quickly.

There are actually a number of good explanations for the disappearing water.  Isostatic rebound, a geologic term for the way land compressed by glaciers rebounds, is one reason for some change, but this is incremental and we are unable to do a thing about it.  Over usage and diversion of water from Lake Michigan are likely culprits, but they are difficult to pin down.  The one thing we could do is address the increased flow of Lake Huron water into the St. Clair River.  This happens when we clear material (dredge) for that river’s shipping channel. 

While dredging of the river dates back to the 1850s, it has only been since the early 1900s that it has fallen under the mandate of the IJC.  Since then there have been a number of approvals for a project that would create structures to slow the river down and compensate for the effects of dredging.  Despite that, these compensating structures have never been built - and they easily could.

There has even been some preliminary work done during one of the dredging projects that created foundations for the ‘speed bumps’ with material removed from the shipping canal. But that has been the entirety of progress over a hundred years.   For whatever reason, the project has never proceeded. It has now become urgent that we act on this century old work order.  The water level of Lake Huron has reached a critical level and there is too much on the line to claim can’t afford to do this work.  The way I see it, we can’t afford not to.

If left as is, the wetlands of Huron and Michigan will soon be high and dry.  The wildlife, plants and fish that use these areas as nurseries will be forced to seek other areas at best, but will more likely suffer.  Property owners will have to spend to keep up with the receding shoreline and public money will need to be spent to keep marinas and ports serviceable.  South Baymouth’s harbor already requires work so that the Chi Chemaun ferry can reach the wharf safely.  These are significant costs that should not be allowed to mount uncontested.

Mitigating structures in the St. Clair River will not entirely address low water levels in Huron and Michigan, but we have to start somewhere.  With IJC approval already in place, processes like environmental assessment should be under way. These lakes are world famous treasures and we are responsible for protecting them as best we can.  It is our heritage and will be our legacy