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.
Non-Government Organization Actions
This summer has seen activity on the water levels file by many non-Government organizations (NGOs). Over and above GBA’s efforts, Georgian Bay Forever (GBF), Restore Our Waters International (ROWI) and Stop the Drop (STD) have all been very active, and GBA has been working with each of them.
Georgian Bay Forever (GBF)
GBA has been working with GBF as they launched an Economic Impact Study on the effect of persistent low water in the Great Lakes. GBF has partnered with the Council of the Great Lakes Region and through them the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto to conduct this study. We all feel that it is important for the two federal governments to understand the importance of water levels to the economic well being of the Great Lakes region and hence the economies of the two countries. This knowledge should help motivate the two governments to take action to address immediate needs and be proactive in responding to future challenges around water levels. GBA contributed $10,000 toward this study and has a seat on the study’s Steering Committee. We expect to have initial study findings early in 2014.
Restore Our Waters International (ROWI)
ROWI is asking the governments on both sides of the border to seek a permanent solution to the low water crisis on Lakes Michigan and Huron and Georgian Bay. Their analysis focuses specifically on the St. Clair River and how to compensate for the past man made and related increases in conveyance of water through the river. They have some very specific suggestions on mechanisms that can be installed in the River to compensate for past conveyance increases. ROWI has taken this message to Ottawa and Washington. They are calling on the governments to commit to restoring water levels in Michigan/Huron/Georgian Bay and directing the US Army Corps of Engineers to assess a full range of compensating measures.
On the US side, ROWI has been working with its US member associations and have used the services of a lobby firm, Holland and Knight, in Washington DC to connect with senior US politicians.
GBA has met with ROWI twice and will continue to explore ways that we can work together to maintain Canadian government engagement on this issue and increase US government engagement.
Stop the Drop (STD)
STD has been very successful this summer in creating broad awareness of the water levels issue. GBA has met with STD to review some of their initial results and will be meeting with them this fall to go over more details. From the sounds of it, they have been successful in engaging boaters, businesses, recreational users and individuals of multi generations within cottage communities on Georgian Bay. We hope to identify ways in which we can work together to use the network of individuals that have been engaged by STD to further the call for action to our elected officials.
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