Water Levels – The Road Ahead
There have been some positive developments on the water levels file over the past four months but the battle continues
First – the Good News
As reported in our spring newsletter, GBA is very pleased with the IJC’s recommendation to the Canadian and US governments that action be taken to address the chronic low water levels in the Middle Great Lakes of Michigan-Huron-Georgian Bay. GBA supports the call by the IJC to conduct further investigation to restore Lake Michigan-Huron water levels (an aside – feedback I heard this summer is that people are dismayed if they hear “more studies”. Could we call a “report and recommendations”. Semantics – but. Reading on, I see that this word change is perhaps a non-starter.). The sooner the two governments appoint and fund a third party organization of their choosing (such as the US Army Corps of Engineers) to conduct this investigation the better. This investigation will presumably build on past analyses by government and non-government organizations and set out specific options that can deliver a return to a healthy historic range of water levels in the Middle Lakes. GBA’s analysis and observations, such as the fact that water levels in lakes Michigan-Huron-Georgian Bay continue to be 17 inches below their long term average while the other Great Lakes are near or above their long-term average, lead us to believe that conveyance in the St. Clair River is an issue that needs to be addressed. What’s more, this is an immediate need. We also feel that there is a need for the governments to anticipate and prepare for other downward pressures on the Great Lakes from Climate Change and to develop a plan to maintain water levels in all of the lakes. GBA will continue to work with the IJC and other non-government organizations (NGOs) to encourage the governments to take the important next step, which is to properly scope and initiate the called for investigation.
Under the terms of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 between Canada and the United States an International Joint Commission was formed consisting of three Commissioners from both countries. Recently Canada had two vacancies on this Commission. Late last spring Canada made two appointments to fill these vacancies. One of these appointees was Gordon Walker. Gordon is a lawyer by training with significant political experience (former Ontario Cabinet Minister). He was also an IJC Commissioner in the early 1990s when important work on water levels was also conducted. But most importantly (at least to us) he is a Georgian Bay cottager. Gordon and his family cottage in Cognashene. Over the years he has taken an active role in the Cognashene Ratepayers Association, one of GBA’s Member Associations. He has firsthand knowledge of the water levels issue both from his past involvement with the IJC and through his personal experience on the Bay. GBA believes that it is very significant that the Government of Canada chose to appoint someone of Gordon’s calibre to the Commission, knowing that he has personal ties to Georgian Bay. To us this signals that the Government of Canada takes the water levels issue very seriously and is prepared to hear strong recommendations.
Meeting with Commissioner Walker
GBA has had the opportunity to meet with Commissioner Walker on a few occasions. What we have learned through these meetings is that he has hit the road running on the water levels issue. As noted above, Commissioner Walker draws on both his past experience as an IJC Commissioner in the 1990s and his personal experience on the Bay. In his words, the job to which he has been appointed is more full time than the part-time it was billed! It has become apparent to us that Commissioner Walker has quickly grasped the scope of the issue, built valuable bridges with key stakeholders and decision makers and started to challenge all with innovative ideas on possible ways forward. GBA looks forward to working with Commissioner Walker and through him the IJC to keep the pressure on the two federal governments to take action.
Now – the Challenges
While we have received very strong support from key federal politicians, specifically Ministers Clement and Baird, we need to continue to communicate the need for action in support of the IJC recommendation to a broad audience at the federal level. We have asked all GBA members and their family members to write to their principal MP (i.e. the one for whom they vote in federal elections) and ask for their commitment to support the IJC recommendation. A list of federal electoral ridings, MPs and MP addresses can be found on GBA’s web site, www.georgianbay.ca. GBA will be meeting with area MPs this fall to press for support. At some point in the not-too-distant future we hope that an action plan to address Great Lakes water levels will be tabled in Parliament. It is critical that enough MPs are sensitized to this issue so that this call for action receives broad and ideally bipartisan support. SO PLEASE CONTACT YOU LOCAL MP!
While the Province of Ontario does not have lead responsibility on issues concerning bi-national waters, these will undoubtedly factor into any review or study that would include alterations to riverbeds. So it is important that MPPs are also made aware that many of their constituents are concerned about Great Lakes water levels. Letter writing to these elected officials is therefore also important. A list of provincial electoral ridings, MPPs and MPP addresses can be found on GBA’s web site, www.georgianbay.ca. PLEASE CONTACT YOU LOCAL MPP!
In the US
The US political landscape is far more complex than the Canadian one. This makes governmental decision making difficult at the best of times. Add in other issues that are currently being faced south of the border, the challenge of getting the Great Lakes water levels issue on the US political agenda becomes immense. To get consensus amongst the eight Great Lakes States to an action plan will be difficult given their varying degrees of engagement and their own political agendas. Then there is Congress as a whole and the Administration and the many Federal agencies who need to agree to a plan. GBA recently attended Great Lakes Week in Milwaukee at which we saw firsthand an example of the challenge to achieving agreement that water levels need to be addressed, let alone agreement on a plan to do so. (Please see the article in this newsletter entitled “Great Lakes Commission Meeting”).
All of this said, there are opportunities to engage the US as listed below:
• GBA has received unsolicited offers of support from several of our US based members. It would appear that several of our members have personal connections with important US decision makers. GBA will develop a list of “connected members” and put out a request for others to identify themselves so that they may be part of an orchestrated plan to engage the US government.
• To this end, GBA has met with ROWI to discuss how that organization’s plans to work through its US connections to lobby for support so that we can direct GBA resources appropriately. ROWI is still developing its US plan of engagement but their three main focuses are to:
o Push the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to re-evaluate necessary compensation in the St. Clair River for all past dredging, sand/gravel mining and erosion;
o Push Congress to authorize the USACE to assess potential compensation measures to provide at least 20 inches of water level restoration to Lakes Michigan-Huron and to construct the best remedy for the current crisis; and
o Promote water level restoration for Lakes Michigan and Huron as a key component of the currently funded Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
• There are other bi-national interests that will likely prove to be good allies in the US. The Council of the Great Lakes Region (CGLR) and through them the Great Lakes Cities Initiative, the Great Lakes Shipowners/Carriers, the Canadian and US Seaway organizations, the Maritime Industries, etc, could all be useful advocates calling for action from the US government. GBA will remain actively engaged with CGLR and encourage their further involvement.
• And lastly but by no means least is the pressure that the Canadian government can bring to bear on its US counterparts. It will be critical that the US government hear loud and clear how important this issue is to their Canadian partner on the Great Lakes. GBA will continue to work with our Federal government to encourage them to engage aggressively with the US.
At the end of the day it is likely that both a bottom up and a top down approach will be necessary to gain consensus for action in the US. As a more robust plan of action and recommendations for the US becomes available, GBA will communicate this through our Member Associations to our US based members, along with a request for their support.
The Bottom Line
GBA has been engaged as a leader on water levels for over a decade now. We are pleased with the recent progress that has been made in drawing attention to this issue and the level of political commitment to engage that we have secured. We will be doubling our efforts this fall and winter to get firm commitments from our elected officials to fast track one or more solutions. We look to our extended GBA family, our members, to help us keep pressure on our governments to take action.
by Bob Duncanson, Executive Director, GBA with
input from the GBA Water Levels Committee
Great Lakes Commission Annual Meeting 2013
This year’s Great Lakes Commission (GLC) and International Joint Commission (IJC) Annual Meetings were held in Milwaukee Wisconsin on the western shores of Lake Michigan. Both Bob Duncanson and John Wilson (Chair, Water Levels Committee) represented the GBA at the meetings. They were important to attend as they dealt with low water levels in the Middle Lakes, and senior bureaucrats from all US and Canadian federal, provincial/state governments and agencies were present (US Army Corp of Engineers USACE, National Oceanic Atmosphere Administration, Environment Canada, Ministry of Natural Resources, Foreign Affairs, etc.)
The Great Lakes Commission is a US interstate agency established in 1955 that promotes the orderly, integrated and comprehensive development, use and conservation of the water and related natural resources of the Great Lakes basin and St. Lawrence River. Its members include the eight Great Lakes US states, with associate member status for the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Québec. The International Joint Commission, which was created through the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 between US and Canada, shares some of the same concerns as
the GLC but is a separate and distinct entity.
The GLC heard from a panel of experts representing differing points of view on how to deal with low water levels in the Middle Lakes. The “Do Nothing” arguments were put forth by Scudder MacKey of Ohio Department of the Natural Resources (DNR), who had worked on the IJC’s International Upper Great Lakes Study and Daniel Injerd of the Illinois DNR. Deborah Lee represented the USACE and presented a more neutral position, while Roger Gauthier of ROWI was the sole participant arguing for the need for compensating measures in the St Clair River.
The debate itself allowed for numerous questionable arguments to be put forward as to why no action should be taken:
• Dredging in the St Clair River took place over 50 years ago and is no longer a factor.
• If compensation measures had been implemented back in the 1970s, the high water in 1986 would have been substantially worse.
• Climate Change is a huge unknown.
• Post-glacial rebound is resulting in higher waters in Lake Michigan.
• Ecological issues resulting from fluctuating water levels are difficult to manage.
• Compensation structures in the St Clair River will negatively affect fish habitat and disturb contaminated sediment.
The Army Corp’s position is that they are neither for or against compensating measures, but they are currently only authorized to study options which address the impact of the 1962 dredging. They also stated that it would take $20 million and 10 years to complete the required study, and, if given approval and funding by both governments, it would be 25 years before the waters would be restored.
Roger Gauthier did well presenting the need for compensating structures based on past dredging, mining and further erosion in the St Clair River. He effectively countered many of the Do Nothing arguments put forth by the other panellists.
The impact of Climate Change was recognized by both sides as a significant driver for future changes in water levels on the Great Lakes. Unfortunately, each participant made reference to their own climate change model that predicted water level changes that supported their own arguments. This disconnect continues to reflect the difficulty in accurately predicting future precipitation, evaporation and runoff across the Great Lakes Region.
One area not addressed in the debate was the significant negative economic impacts that will result from low water levels in the Great Lakes, and the Economic Impact Study by the Mowat Centre that is now underway, and which will quantify the substantive costs to both countries, if action is not taken to deal with this issue.
It was striking that the moderator of the debate allowed only Scudder Mckey to give an overhead presentation at the beginning and end of the debate to outline the background information and material supporting the Do Nothing position. No other panelist was given the same opportunity.
Unfortunately, the Great Lakes Commission probably did not get to hear a balanced debate on low water levels and one hopes more reasoned, non-partisan, scientific work will be made available to the Commission in the future. The lead article in this UPDATE issue sets out how GBA and others are working to counter the Do Nothing positions that were encountered at this conference.
by John Wilson
Chair of GBA Water Levels Committee
And Director for Manitou
Water levels Action Plan
The Georgian Bay Association (GBA) is a public policy advocacy group acting on behalf of its member associations to talk to and persuade government bodies at all levels to take action on issues of importance to its members.
Water levels in Georgian Bay are at an all time low level. The short-term prognosis is alarming and there are many ramifications for continued low levels.
- Water based owners will face difficulty in accessing their property.
- Many will face significant expense to relocate, repair or rebuild docks and/or boathouses in order to gain access.
- Smaller navigation channels will become unusable and hazardous for boat traffic, requiring expensive blasting operations and increasing the risk of boating accidents.
- Property values will be reduced due to inaccessibility.
- Water quality will be adversely affected as natural flushing of bays and inlets is reduced.
- Marina operators will be hard pressed to serve the needs of their customers to launch and moor boats. For some, this will bring their financial viability into question.
- Marina operators will need to blast or dredge their harbours, which is very costly, time consuming and requires regulatory approvals.
- The Great Lakes shipping industry is already having to reduce ship load capacities due to low water levels, which has led to increased costs and loss of business.
- Mining, manufacturing and processing industries, including mills, are directly impacted by reduced loads and higher shipping costs.
- Shoreline municipalities face increased costs to draw water from the Middle Lakes.
If water levels continue to drop, which is a significant risk if no action is taken, then these negative consequences are going to get considerably worse. It will impact many more people and businesses, and the negative effects on the economy will become more severe.
GBA wants water levels returned to an historic healthy range. However, any solution on water levels that the governments agree to will take many years to implement. So we are working on both the immediate challenges of extremely low water levels this year, and a strategy to achieve a return to a historic healthy range of water levels over time.
There will be short-term challenges this year that current low water levels pose to many of our members, specifically access to marinas and passage from marinas to cottage properties. GBA has and will continue to work with local municipalities and the Provincial and Federal governments to help ensure that the necessary blasting and dredging can be done in time to provide spring and summer access, but maintain sensitivity to the environment. We will advocate for financial relief from governments, as appropriate, particularly for work that is required to keep communal channels open and marinas operational.
GBA has struck a Water Access Committee to guide efforts to help local associations and property owners address the short-term challenges created by these record low water levels.
GBA has taken a leadership role with local municipalities, governments and other stakeholder groups to develop coordinated solutions:
- We have contacted municipal representatives at the Township of the Archipelago and the Township of Georgian Bay, to discuss how to coordinate efforts. We will be meeting with them and other municipalities in early February to develop an advocacy plan.
- GBA has met with senior MNR staff at both the local and provincial level to start discussions on how to streamline blasting and dredging applications.
- GBA has met with other stakeholders such as Boating Ontario to discuss and coordinate our short term strategy.
- GBA has arranged a meeting with Minister Clement to discuss the short term challenges. Specifically, streamlining sign off on blasting and dredging applications through DFO and the potential for federal financial assistance for marinas and communal channel alterations that may be necessary to support the access needs of our members.
Strategy for Action – Permanent Solution
GBA wants water levels returned to an historic healthy range. In the absence of a Canada-US agreement on what the range of water levels should be, we recommend that the governments use the 1993 Water Levels Reference Study that clearly identified both a low and high crisis level for the Middle Great Lakes – a range of 44.4 inches. Water levels fluctuating between these crisis levels should be agreed as the target historic healthy range. As at November 30 2012, we were 16 inches below this low crisis water level.
Our challenge to the two governments is to return water levels above the low crisis point and then maintain them within the historic healthy range.
The process that needs to be adopted by the Canadian and US governments to deal with the water levels crisis is, in simple terms, as follows:
- Acknowledge and make a decision to return the water levels in the Middle Lakes (Lakes Huron & Michigan, and Georgian Bay) to the historic healthy range.
- Authorize and fund an “agency” (IJC, Great Lakes Executive Committee or other) to investigate the potential solutions and make a recommendation on the optimum solution to the governments.
- Fund and implement the recommended solution.
GBA acknowledges the many challenges we must face to move this process forward and we will do so to the best of our ability.
GBA will use our established relationships with elected officials and their staff, up to and including the Prime Ministers Office, to advocate for action on all fronts to achieve our objective. This includes meetings, phone calls, letter writing, promoting public engagement from our members and using the media to communicate our message.
In doing so we draw on the expertise of other organizations, such as Georgian Bay Forever, who will provide vital science and economic impact analysis that is beyond our capacity to generate.
We have and will continue to network with other organizations that have common objectives to encourage a consistent message. We will focus these networking efforts on organizations that have connections around the Bay outside of GBA’s traditional boundaries.
GBA will also provide encouragement and advice, if requested, to US interests that are engaging the US Government on this issue. To this end we will encourage GBA US based members to participate and support US advocacy efforts.
- GBA participated in the public meetings that the International Joint Commission held in the summer of 2012. We stressed our position that the “Do Nothing” recommendation from the Study Board Report is unacceptable. We feel that this Report failed to fully assess the cost of doing nothing.
- GBA held an encouraging meeting with Ministers Baird, Kent and Clement in Ottawa in the fall of 2012. They understood the breadth of economic impact that low water levels has and will have on the Ontario and Canadian economy. They agreed to petition their US counterparts to direct the International Joint Commission to fast track a long term solution to the Middle Great Lakes water level issue.
- GBA has had follow up communications with the Ministers and their staff to keep this issue on their short list of priorities. We have also spoken to elected officials at all three levels of government to ensure that the voices and concerns of our members are being heard.
- GBA participated in discussions with US stakeholders who are trying to create a similar political commitment for action in the US.
- GBA has initiated meetings with other Canadian stakeholders including Ontario Boating and First Nations who have concerns about the low water crisis.
- GBA has conducted press interviews with numerous media outlets including radio, TV, magazines and newspapers in an effort to keep this issue and our position clearly in the public domain.
GBA arranged a strategy session in December with the other members of the GB5 (Georgian Bay Forever, Georgian Bay Land Trust, Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve and Eastern Georgian Bay Stewardship Council) to agree a joint water levels strategy so that we work together to coordinate effort.
Water Levels subcommittee:
The Water Levels Committee works with Georgian Bay Forever and other NGOs to voice the interests of GBA members on water levels.
For the latest report from the International Upper Great Lakes Study Board on restoration of water levels in Lakes Michigan/Huron go to
The International Joint Commission is an independent bi-national organization established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. Its purpose is to help prevent and resolve disputes relating to the use and quality of boundary waters and to advise Canada and the United States on related questions.
Real-Time Water levels in Georgian Bay and Lake Huron (Part of The Canadian Hydrographic Service Site)
US Army Corps of Engineers current Great Lakes water levels.
The Great Lakes Information Network (GLIN)