Signs are mounting that Lake Michigan’s already-low water levels are taking a turn for the worse. The big lake is a foot lower now than it was this time last year. And on Sunday, its level briefly dipped below a record low, according to federal monitoring data.
Water levels are down in wetlands and rivers, environmental experts say, and the latest decline is more bad news for ships, boats and lake and river marinas already suffering from nine years of sinking levels.
November was especially hard on lakes Michigan and Huron, which geologically are considered one lake. Instead of a normal seasonal drop of 2 inches in November, the lakes dropped 6 inches. For the Lake Michigan-Huron watershed, it was the driest November since 1908, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data. Army Corps hydrologists and engineers blame excessive evaporation caused by cold air sucking moisture from the relatively warm lake.
Carl Woodruff, a hydraulic engineer, said it is unusual when evaporation outpaces the water runoff into the two lakes, which happened last month. As a rule of thumb, the two generally match each other over a year’s time.
Dry weather may be only one reason behind the plunging levels.
More than 90 years of historical water-level data suggest the lakes may fluctuate on a 30-year cycle, going from low to low. Lakes Michigan and Huron were low in the mid-1930s, the mid-1960s and began the latest decline in 1998.
Some of the other Great Lakes, particularly Erie and Ontario, have benefited from tropical storms and hurricanes out of the south that brought rain in recent years, including Katrina, Dennis and Arlene.
December 6, 2007
November 26, 2007
The governments of Canada and the United States released the binational study report on November 26, 2007. The GLSLS Study was conducted to evaluate the infrastructure needs of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway system, specifically the engineering, economic and environmental implications of those needs as they pertain to commercial navigation. The study assesses the long-term maintenance and capital requirements to ensure the continuing viability of the system as a safe, efficient, reliable and sustainable component of North America’s transportation infrastructure. [From Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Study]
The study identifies four main observations, each with key considerations that should be taken into account by the Canadian and U.S. governments, and by industry stakeholders, when deciding the Seaway’s future:
- The GLSLS system has the potential to alleviate congestion on the road and rail transportation networks as well as at border crossings in the Great Lakes Basin and St. Lawrence River region.
- A stronger focus on shortsea shipping would allow the GLSLS system to be more closely integrated with the road and rail transportation systems, while providing shippers with a cost-effective, timely and reliable means to transport goods.
- The existing infrastructure of the GLSLS system must be maintained in good operating condition in order to ensure the continued safety, efficiency, reliability and competitiveness of the system.
- The long-term health and success of the GLSLS system will depend in part on its sustainability, including the further reduction of negative ecological impacts caused by commercial navigation.
Key considerations regarding point #4 include:
- The GLSLS system should be managed in a way that prevents the inadvertent introduction and transmission of non-indigenous invasive species and supports the objectives of programs designed to minimize or eliminate their impact.
- The existing sustainable navigation strategy for the St. Lawrence River could be extended to the Great Lakes Basin.
- The movement and suspension of sediments caused by shipping or operations related to navigation should be managed by developing a GLSLS system-wide strategy that addresses the many challenges associated with dredged material and looks for beneficial re-use opportunities.
- Ship emissions should be minimized through the use of new fuels, new technologies or different navigational practices.
- Islands and narrow channel habitats should be protected from the impacts of vessel wakes.
- There is a need to improve our understanding of the social, technical and environmental impacts of long-term declines in water levels as related to navigation, and identify mitigation strategies.
- Improvements should be made to short- and long-term environmental monitoring of mitigation activities.
H/T to Trans-Talk
October 26, 2007
From the Post-Tribune:
Great Lakes water levels are near historic lows. And with droughts in the Southeast and Southwest, the pressure to turn to the Great Lakes as a source of fresh water is growing.
The Georgian Bay Association released new figures in August indicating that an extra 2.5 billion gallons of water are being drained from the lakes every day. It takes about 99 years for water in Lake Michigan to replenish itself.
Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov. and Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson hinted earlier this month that he’d be willing to divert Great Lakes water when he said “states like Wisconsin are awash in water.” He later partially withdrew that statement.
“On a longer-term basis, among the issues are, we’ve been losing population in the Midwest to the West and Southwest, which means we’ve been losing seats in virtually every election. The concern is that in the future, we’d not be able to defend our territory in Congress,” said Gary environmental activist Lee Botts.
June 12, 2007
Lake Superior water levels are headed toward record lows in early fall, a projection that is causing concern about an eventual trickle-down effect in the other Great Lakes as well as Lake St. Clair.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ June forecast — looking ahead to September and October — predicts Superior’s water level will dip under the record low for that time of the year. That low was set in 1925.
Water levels in lakes Huron, Michigan, St. Clair, Erie and Ontario are all on track to fall below average in early autumn, according to Army Corps estimates.
Lakes Michigan and Huron receive 20 percent to 30 percent of their water from Superior.
At the same time in September that Superior is expected to hit a record low, engineers predict Huron and Michigan will be around 20 inches below normal, roughly at the same point they were last year.
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June 1, 2007
For the second month in a row, Soo Today reports that the outflow from Lake Superior into Lake Michigan-Huron will be increased although Lake Superior and Lakes Michigan-Huron continue to be well below their long-term averages for May:
The International Lake Superior Board of Control, under authority granted to it by the International Joint Commission, has set the Lake Superior outflow to 1,530 cubic metres per second (m3/s) (54.0 thousand cubic feet per second (tcfs)) for the month of June.
This is the outflow recommended by the regulation plan for the month of June and is an increase from the May outflow, which was 1,500 m3/s (53.0 tcfs).
Currently, the Lake Superior level is about 53 cm (21 inches) below its long-term average beginning-of-June level, and is 40 cm (16 inches) below the level recorded a year ago.
This past month the level of Lake Superior rose 3 cm (1 inch), while on average it rises by 10 cm (4 inches) in May.
The level of Lakes Michigan-Huron is now about 47 cm (18 inches) below its long-term average beginning-of-June level but is 8 cm (3 inches) lower than it was a year ago.
The May outflow increase was almost 9% while the International Joint Commission (IJC) proposes a study of water levels and near-historic lows in Lake Superior are turning the largest coastal wetland in the Great Lakes into dry land.
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May 31, 2007
The Chronicle Journal (Thunder Bay, Ontario) carries this update on the legislative process within Ontario to pass the Great Lakes Agreement:
A bill to protect Great Lakes water from being sold or shipped across the continent passed its final hurdle in the Ontario legislature Thursday, as all three parties voted unanimously to pass it into law.
Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay called it “a very important accomplishment,” as Ontario has taken a step toward implementing a deal signed with Quebec and eight U.S. states to institute stronger protections for Great Lakes water.
The international agreement seeks to ban transfers of water outside the Great Lakes basin to protect against other jurisdictions trying to access the resource.
Ontario’s bill also creates a new conservation charge for companies that draw a profit by tapping into the province’s water supply.
Most environmental groups applauded the government for the bill, which they say is stronger than legislation being proposed in the United States.
May 14, 2007
From The Sault Star (Ontario):
Are the upper Great Lakes shrinking because of dredging on the St. Clair River?
That’s one contentious theory the International Joint Commission is trying to sort out.
The IJC, established by the Canada and U.S. governments in 1909 as an independent body to resolve and dispute issues that touch on our shared waters, has just embarked on a five-year, $17.5-million study meant to explore decreasing water levels on lakes Superior and Michigan-Huron.
The most urgent priority is to look at the St. Clair.
In the 1920s and ’30s and 1950s and ’60s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged deeper channels to accommodate increased commercial traffic through the St. Clair, which links the upper and lower lakes beginning at Sarnia.
“There’s been a lot of erosion on the St. Clair River. There’s been a study saying . . . it’s draining water three times faster,” said Ted Yukyk, Canadian director of the International Upper Great Lakes Study.
The International Upper Great Lakes Study group will use “the best science we have now” to objectively explore all possibilities, including flaws in earlier studies, Yukyk said.
They’ll look at Superior longer-term.
The world’s largest freshwater body of water has been on an unprecedented nine-year decline and hasn’t been lower since 1926.
Water flow regulations at the compensating gates on the St. Mary’s River will also be updated for the first time in two decades.
Yukyk expects results from the first part of the study, along with recommendations, in two years.
Two years seems like a long time to wait.
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May 4, 2007
The Cleveland Plain Dealer details these problems with wind power in Lake Erie:
A national study of wind energy points out what advocates of a Lake Erie wind farm have emphasized – the lack of policies and guidelines at all levels of government adds complexity and time to wind projects.
Ohio generates a mere 7 megawatts of wind power. But an alternative-energy task force, appointed by the Cuyahoga County commissioners, is pursuing a wind project of five to 10 turbines, generating up to 20 megawatts three miles off the shore of downtown Cleveland.
The county task force found it would need nearly a dozen approvals at the state and federal levels, from agencies that have never dealt with offshore windmills.
The possibility of erecting windmills in Lake Erie raises a number of environmental concerns, including the destruction of migrating birds.
The National Research Council study found no evidence that wind turbines have done significant damage to bird populations, but it called for more study.
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