Concerns are rising over low Great Lakes water levels


Despite winter's wet, snowy weather seeming to latch on to the Great Lakes area with a death-grip going into spring, water levels in the lakes are still well below normal and this is raising concerns about the effect this will have on the environment, lakeside businesses, and consumers' wallets.

According to Environment Canada, water levels are down across the Great Lakes. As of the beginning of April, levels ranged from 17 cm below the 1918-2012 average in Lake Ontario, to 68 cm below the average for Lakes Huron and Michigan, and these levels are significantly lower than last year at this time.

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"Levels are down," said Toronto boater Philip Hill, in a report on CBC's The National on Saturday. "We're all worried."

For those that depend on the ferry service between Manitoulin Island, Tobermory and the Bruce Peninsula, their livelihood is at stake due to the low water levels causing a delay in service. Mary, a hotel owner along Lake Huron, told the CBC: "I'm very upset. I don't have a livelihood."

The situation is having an impact on the consumer as well, since cargo ships need to carry less to avoid bottoming out in these low waters. This raises the cost of their cargo, which is directly reflected in the prices consumers see on store shelves.

Part of the reason for the lack of water is the significant drought experienced in the United States last year. This meant that there was far less precipitation coming into the Great Lakes basin than normal, and even a return to more 'typical' wet weather this winter couldn't make up for it. Also, even with winter clinging on to the area going into the start of spring, there was still less ice on the Great Lakes than normal, and the relatively drier weather over the month of March and the latter half of April has seemingly undone any gains the lakes may have seen.

"We have less ice in the wintertime," said John Nevin, of the International Joint Commission, told the The National in a Skype interview. "If you have less ice, you have increased evaporation, especially in the winter."

"Evaporation is actually the number one cause of water loss in the Great Lakes," he added.

The International Joint Commission (IJC) is a joint Canada-U.S. organization that monitors water levels and water quality in the Great Lakes, and acts to identify and hopefully prevent any conflicts from the two countries' use of the lakes and connecting waterways.

There are also other issues that cause a serious drain on the lake water levels. Dredging of the St. Clair River, to allow larger cargo ships to pass through the lakes, has increase the drainage of Lakes Huron far beyond normal amounts, and the shoreline ecosystems and the businesses that depend on ferry services are both suffering. Also, municipalities draw from the lake system, as do industries.

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Word has come of some relief for Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, though. Just last week, reports came out saying that the Commission was recommending that structures be built in the St. Clair River to slow the flow of water out of Lake Huron, but the returns on that could be slow in coming.

"Acting now is a bit of challenge because to do anything takes time … you are dealing with two levels of government, two national governments," said Ted Yuzyk, the IJC’s director of science and engineering, according to CTV News. "Even if we start now, we’re looking years out before anything is actually fully accomplished."

"People are going to have to adapt to the low water levels," he added. "So the commission is telling the government that adaptive management is a new strategy that the population is going to have to look at in a more serious manner."

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