Extreme Conditions and Challenges During High Water Levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River

By Rob Caldwell, International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

US Army National Guard members deploy a water-filled cofferdam by Sodus Point, New York, to help control Lake Ontario floodwaters
US Army National Guard members deploy a water-filled cofferdam by Sodus Point, New York, to help control Lake Ontario floodwaters. Credit: US Army National Guard

There has been much speculation and many theories put forth as to what factors contributed to the high-water crisis on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River this year, from rain to snow, water levels and regulation Plan 2014.

The truth is there were many factors. But as a colleague recently summed up, the main ones were “Rain, rain, and more rain!”

Of course, this is an over-simplification, but in retrospect, the high water levels stemmed mainly from four rain-related factors: an unusual mild and wet winter, above-normal inflows from the upper Great Lakes, a record-setting spring freshet in the Ottawa River basin, and heavy rainfalls across the Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River system that have continued through spring and early summer.

This unprecedented combination of climate conditions presented the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board with a most difficult challenge. Let’s take a closer look at how things unfolded during the first half of 2017, including the factors leading to the record-high levels and how the board has taken into consideration these exceptional conditions in its decision making.

Watershed basin map
Watershed basin map with outlet locations. Credit: Environment & Climate Change Canada

2017 Brings New Plan

On Dec. 8, 2016, the International Joint Commission issued a Supplementary Order, replacing Plan 1958-D and adopting Plan 2014 as the new regulation plan effective Jan. 7, 2017. Plan 2014 prescribes a new set of rules that the board must ordinarily follow in setting the outflows from Lake Ontario through the St. Lawrence River, which are controlled at the Moses-Saunders generating station at Cornwall, Ontario and Massena, New York.

At the time Plan 2014 was implemented, Lake Ontario’s water level was 6 centimeters or 2.4 inches below its long-term (1918-2016) average for that time of year, and at about the same level as each of the past two years. The upper Great Lakes, including Lake Erie, which supplies about 85 percent of the total inflow of water to Lake Ontario via the Niagara River and Welland Canal, were somewhat above average, but not significantly so and also at similar levels to recent years. Finally, at the start of January, ice was already forming on the St. Lawrence River in the Beauharnois Canal (located between Moses-Saunders and the city of Montreal further downstream on the St. Lawrence). The board had already reduced outflows from Lake Ontario to the rate required for ice formation, which applied under the old and new regulation plans, allowing a seamless transition.

A Mild and Wet Winter Season (January to March)

When ice starts forming at critical locations in the St. Lawrence River, outflows must be temporarily reduced to ensure the formation of a safe and stable ice cover. Doing so reduces the risk that the ice cover will collapse or that the fast-moving water will generate what’s known as frazil ice (ice crystals suspended in water that is too turbulent to freeze solid), possibly resulting in an ice jam. Such an occurrence would significantly reduce outflows, causing immediate flooding upstream, and rapidly declining levels downstream. Once a stable ice cover has formed, the board can safely increase outflows.

By Jan. 17, the Beauharnois Canal was half-covered with ice and the unusual winter weather began. Unseasonably mild temperatures combined with a number of heavy precipitation events in January caused much of the precipitation to fall as rain, particularly in the more southerly parts of the basin. Much of the snow that fell also melted with the mild weather, running off into local streams and tributaries, and making its way to Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

Notably, daily high temperatures were above freezing for about a week straight from Jan. 16-23. With an extensive, prolonged thaw under way, the ice that had formed in the Beauharnois Canal began to disappear, and eventually receded to the point that Lake Ontario outflow was safely increased back to values previously passed during the open-water season. But by Jan. 25, following another period of colder weather, ice had started forming again and the flow was reduced again on Jan. 28. But mild weather returned, and so flow was again increased on Jan. 31.

This cycle of freezing and thawing continued in February, and flows were adjusted six times that month in response to fluctuating temperatures and ice conditions. A few days of typically cold winter weather at the start of February were followed by several days of milder, but below freezing temperatures, allowing ice to form slowly. However, the last half of the month was exceptionally warm: daily high temperatures recorded at Dorval, Quebec, near Beauharnois, were above freezing for 13 straight days from Feb. 18 through March 2 and reached 14.5 Celsius (58 Fahrenheit) on Feb. 25. The ice cover was gone by Feb. 26, and this permitted the board to increase the flow several times by month’s end.

At the same time, water levels throughout the system began to increase gradually as snowmelt and wet weather continued. Lake Ontario rose significantly more than normal in February, as inflows were above average and outflows were restricted by fluctuating ice conditions. St. Lawrence River levels near Montreal also gradually edged upwards until suddenly shooting above average on Feb. 26 as snowmelt combined with rare February thunderstorms and rainfall.

Normally, by February, a solid ice cover has formed on the St. Lawrence River and remains in place, while occasionally, milder temperatures cause the ice cover to melt during this month. Either condition allows flows to be safely increased thereafter. At no time in recorded history had ice begun forming in March, and the board had no reason to believe this year would be any different. But between March 4 and March 30, substantial ice cover formed and disappeared twice in the Beauharnois Canal during what were two of the coldest stretches of weather seen all winter. As a result, Lake Ontario outflows varied considerably, being reduced as ice formed during a good part of the first half of the month, and then increased four times by a total of 18 percent from March 17- 22. Once increased, flows remained relatively stable for the rest of March.

Overall, the winter saw five periods of ice formation punctuated with thaw cycles in between, the most ever seen in the St. Lawrence River.

While highly variable ice conditions restricted outflows at times, the main driver of rising water levels throughout the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system during the first three months of 2017 was the above-normal amount of water the basin received. This water came from precipitation, snowmelt and runoff from within the basin, and above-average and increasing inflows from Lake Erie, which also saw wet conditions and generally rising water levels throughout this period. From January through March, the net total water supply (i.e., total inflow) to Lake Ontario was above average, and the 12th highest for this three-month period since records begin in 1900. At the end of March, water levels were where they were in 2016, and the mid-March 90-day forecasts from Canada and the US suggested average precipitation was expected in April, May and June.

Record Ottawa River freshet (April and May)

The unusual wet winter transitioned quickly to an exceptionally wet spring. Water levels on Lake St. Louis, located on the St. Lawrence River just upstream of Montreal, generally rose quickly throughout the first three weeks of April following a significant thaw event marked by thunderstorms and rainfall. This event, while relatively large, was not entirely unusual; the Ottawa River enters the St. Lawrence at this location and at this time of year snowmelt and rainfall tend to rapidly increase flows out of this large basin. Nonetheless, the peak flow of 6,877 cubic meters per second (242,900 cubic feet per second) on April 20 was a record for this date, and the highest Ottawa River flow since 1998.

From April 1-5, the Plan 2014 rule curve flow was followed. Thereafter, a series of rainstorms passed through the region, with areas to the north and east of Lake Ontario and into the Ottawa and St. Lawrence River basins being particularly hard-hit. This led to two dozen adjustments to Lake Ontario outflows during the month of April in response to the rapidly rising and highly variable Ottawa River and local tributary flows.

These adjustments were done in accordance with the Plan 2014 “F-limit,” which was designed to mimic the board’s decision making strategies under the previous regulation plan, Plan 1958-D, during high-water events in the 1990s (whereby flooding and erosion risks and impacts upstream on Lake Ontario and in the 1000 Islands were balanced with those downstream from Lake St. Louis through Lake St. Peter). During periods of wet spring conditions, as levels on Lake Ontario reach higher and more critical values, this multi-tiered rule also allows increased levels downstream at Lake St. Louis, which acts as somewhat of a barometer for other areas downstream, and Lake Ontario outflows are adjusted accordingly. The total inflow to Lake Ontario during the month of April was the second highest recorded since 1900.

While the wet weather continued, Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River levels continued to rise, reaching record high levels and resulting in flooding and related impacts throughout the system. Lake Ontario’s end-of-week level reached what is known as the criterion H14 upper trigger level on April 28. Criterion H14 is another rule, again part of Plan 2014, that when exceeded, authorizes the board to follow an alternative strategy and release outflows to provide all possible relief to riparians living along the shorelines of the entire system. There are four upper trigger levels per month (48 per year) and these thresholds can be expected to be exceeded 2 percent of the time, by definition, given historical water supplies. However, at the time, given the exceptional conditions, the board consensus was that the best way to balance the effects of water levels upstream and downstream and minimize flood and erosion impacts to the extent possible throughout the system was to continue to follow the “F-limit” of Plan 2014. As a result, deviations from the plan were not employed.

Unfortunately, as conditions remained critical, the wet weather only worsened in May. The total inflow to Lake Ontario during the month was the highest recorded since 1900. The month began with a so-called “perfect storm.” There were two extremely large and slow-moving storm systems that passed through the region, the first on April 30 and the second from May 4-8. These storms combined to dump a minimum of 75 millimeters or 3 inches of rain over most of the Lake Ontario, Ottawa and St. Lawrence River basins, while some areas around Lake Ontario received twice that amount. Heavy rain also fell upstream of Lake Ontario on Lake Erie, where water levels also were rising and inflows to Lake Ontario increased to well above average values.

As a result, during the first third of May, water flowed into Lake Ontario at record-high rates and about 25 percent higher than any release the board can physically pass down the river. At the same time, the daily mean Ottawa River outflow (at Carillon Dam) peaked at 8,862 m3/s (313,000 cfs) on May 8 – a new all‐time record maximum, which resulted in significant flooding in many parts of the Ottawa River basin, in the Montreal area and in many areas of the St. Lawrence further downstream.

In response, outflows from Lake Ontario were reduced quickly and significantly over the first week of May to moderate the sharp rise in St. Lawrence River levels near Montreal. As Ottawa River flows subsided, the Lake Ontario outflow was increased rapidly, rising from a low of 6,200 m3/s (219,000 cfs) on May 7 to a high of 10,200 m3/s (360,200 cfs) on May 24 (i.e., raised 35 percent in 17 days). In so doing, the board continued to balance upstream and downstream levels according to the “F-limit,” exceeded the Plan 2014 flow and initiated major deviations in accordance with criterion H14 to provide all possible relief to riparians upstream of the dam.

The flow of 10,200 m3/s (360,200 cfs) was equivalent to the record-maximum weekly mean values passed under Plan 1958-DD in 1993 and 1998 and also equivalent to the maximum “L-limit” value, another rule within Plan 2014. This limit defines the maximum outflow that will maintain adequate levels and safe velocities for navigation in the International Section of the St. Lawrence River when Lake Ontario levels are very high – from above 75.70 meters until 76 meters (248.36 feet until 249.34 feet). The St. Lawrence Seaway imposed several mitigation measures to ensure safe vessel transits remained possible.

Despite these record high releases, inflows also remained well above normal seasonal values, and Lake Ontario levels remained high and peaked near the end of May at 75.88 meters or 248.95 feet, a new all-time record value. Montreal area levels, after their rapid rise toward record values throughout the first third of May, generally declined slowly thereafter as Lake Ontario outflows were increased, but Ottawa River outflows decreased at a faster rate.

In total, Lake Ontario outflows were adjusted 23 times in May.

Heavy Rainfalls Continue (June and July)

By June 2, water levels on Lake St. Louis had started to decline. On June 14, the board initiated additional major deviations from Plan 2014 flows, increasing the Lake Ontario outflow to 10,400 m3/s (367,300 cfs). This was a new record-maximum weekly flow, the highest ever released from Lake Ontario. The St. Lawrence Seaway imposed further mitigation measures and undertook an assessment of this higher outflow for several days, concluding that it was the absolute maximum outflow possible to maintain adequate levels and safe velocities for navigation in the International Section of the river. After some deliberation regarding the impacts of increasing the outflows further, the board decided to maintain this outflow for the remainder of the month and into July.

The monthly mean outflow from Lake Ontario in June averaged 10,310 m3/s (364,100 cfs), 38 percent above the June long-term average (1900-2016) and a new record-high value for any month, exceeding the previous record of 10,010 m3/s (353,500 cfs) set in May and June of 1993.

Wet weather continued in June. A particularly noteworthy storm on June 23 dropped 20.5 mm or 0.8 inches of rain on the Lake Ontario basin.  After gradually declining for most of the month, Lake Ontario levels rose slightly as a result. The total inflow to Lake Ontario during the month was the second highest recorded in June since 1900. Nonetheless, the record-high outflows allowed Lake Ontario levels to fall 9 cm or 3.5 inches overall in June – much more than the typical 1 cm or 0.4 inch decline, and the 11th highest June decline on record. By the end of June, Lake Ontario was 10 cm or 3.9 inches below the peak level recorded on May 29. About 6.6 cm or 2.6 inches of that water was removed from Lake Ontario, owing to major deviations undertaken since May 23. The remainder was due to high outflows prescribed by Plan 2014 and the fact that inflows, while still high, had begun to decline.

Montreal area levels generally fell through the middle of June as Ottawa River outflows declined, but rose slightly at the end of June and even further during the first week of July, reaching high levels and flooding similar to that seen earlier in the spring.

The board agreed to continue releasing 10,400 m3/s (367,300 cfs) into July. Despite these efforts, the continuing wet conditions sustained the high levels and severe impacts to Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River property owners, recreational boaters, businesses and tourism. Lake Erie remained well above average, and combined with significant rainfall during the past month, the total inflow to Lake Ontario remained high.

Decisions and the Path Forward

Lake Ontario water level forecast through end of 2017
Lake Ontario water level forecast through end of 2017. Credit: Environment & Climate Change Canada

The first several months of 2017 have been an especially challenging time for those living and working throughout the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system. Many have been impacted by the exceptionally high water levels.  While levels have begun to decline, the effects continue to be felt and may continue for months to come.

For its part, the board has made every effort to address the exceptional weather conditions and reduce levels to the extent possible. Outflows were continuously adjusted from January through March during what was a generally wet winter, with highly variable temperatures and challenging ice conditions. As the weather turned from bad to worse, the board continued to adjust outflows in April and May, this time to address the extreme precipitation, record inflows and rapidly rising water levels which have caused severe flooding and associated impacts throughout the system. Since then, the board has increased outflows to record-high values in an attempt to lower the extraordinary levels of Lake Ontario and provide relief to those impacted, while also considering the impacts to riparian interests downstream on the St. Lawrence, and to other stakeholders, including commercial navigation and the industries it supports.

Despite these efforts, wet weather has continued and levels have remained high. There are unfortunately no simple solutions, but the board will continue to consider all possible options, as well as associated impacts, in setting outflows from Lake Ontario. High outflows are expected to continue for several weeks, and as warmer and drier summer conditions continue and evaporation rates increase into the fall. The board expects water levels throughout the system will generally continue to decline, providing gradual relief from the high water crisis of 2017. But keep in mind that water levels may remain above normal for some time to come, and autumn brings a higher chance of damaging storms. Strong winds and wave action can cause significant fluctuations on the lake and river, with temporary changes of more than half a meter (2 feet) in certain locations.

Further information on Lake Ontario flow regulation can be found at the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board Facebook page and the board’s web site.

Board Reaching Thousands Online

By Arun Heer, International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

Since the establishment of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board by the International Joint Commission in 1952, keeping people informed about water level and flow conditions in the lake and river has been a top priority. With the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River basin covering such a broad geographic area, including communities in New York, and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, communication has often been challenging and resource intensive. In the past, the board relied on methods such as in-person public meetings, telephone conferences, and mailing news releases and hard-copy letters to connect with people.

Today, the board is reaching out with modern communication tools such as Facebook, webpages, electronic mailing lists, animated videos, and digital press releases to deliver messages quickly. The board’s Facebook page, in particular, has proven to be a great forum for posting information on topics such as water levels, outflow changes and hydrologic forecasts.

The Facebook page had close to 800 “likes” in January, and that number had increased to more than 2,300 as of July 24. Facebook has become a place where the board can interact with the community in real-time, and where members of the public can interact with one another to share and exchange information.

The board encourages everyone to visit its Facebook page for the most up-to-date information on board activities and join the conversation. Additionally, short educational videos, media releases, and other information can be found on the board’s website.

Arun Heer is US secretary for the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board and co-chair for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee.

Rob Caldwell
 is the Canadian regulation representative of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, and provides technical support and advice to the board from his office in Cornwall, Ontario.

NY Sea Grant, Cornell University to Survey High Water Impact

By Kara Lynn Dunn, New York Sea Grant

To help Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River communities document the impact of record-breaking water levels, New York Sea Grant awarded rapid response funding to Cornell University to develop and conduct high water impact surveys.

One survey is for property owners along or connected to New York’s Lake Ontario shoreline; the other is for the New York side of the St. Lawrence River. 

The surveys are available at www.nyseagrant.org/waterlevel2017.

The data will be used to identify the types of impact and most vulnerable areas to flooding events. Reporting of results will be on combined measures and will not identify individual addresses.

Left: High water in Clayton, New York, at Cedar Point State Park; right: road flooding in Cape Vincent, New York
Left: High water in Clayton, New York, at Cedar Point State Park; right: road flooding in Cape Vincent, New York. Credit: NYSG/Mary Austerman

“This survey effort is in response to stakeholder requests for a standardized method to collect, report, and document the impacts of high water levels on waterfront properties, including erosion, damage to natural and manmade shoreline protective features, and business disruption,” said Mary Austerman, a coastal community development specialist with New York Sea Grant.

Austerman is collaborating on the surveys with Cornell University Assistant Professor of Biological and Environmental Engineering Dr. Scott Steinschneider and Cornell University Professor of Natural Resources Dr. Richard C. Stedman.

Survey responses will be accepted through Aug. 31, 2017. For more information, project leader Mary Austerman can be reached at 315-331-8415, mp357@cornell.edu or visit the New York Sea Grant Facebook page.

 Left and right: High water in the Sodus Bay, New York

Left and right: High water in the Sodus Bay, New York, area. Credit: NYSG/Mary Austerman

Residents of the Sodus Bay area along the southern shore of Lake Ontario pilot tested the survey.

New York Sea Grant is a cooperative program of Cornell University and the State University of New York, and one of 33 university-based programs under the National Sea Grant College Program of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. New York Sea Grant maintains Great Lakes regional offices in Buffalo, Newark and Oswego.

For updates on New York Sea Grant activities statewide, see www.nyseagrant.org.

Kara Lynn Dunn is a publicist for the New York Sea Grant Great Lakes Program.

Forecasting ‘Dead Zones’ to Help Protect Drinking Water

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Cleveland, Ohio, depends on water from Lake Erie for its drinking supply, which can be affected by a hypoxic zone
Cleveland, Ohio, depends on water from Lake Erie for its drinking supply, which can be affected by a hypoxic zone. Credit: Rick Harris

A new tool in development should help water treatment plants in communities along Lake Erie prepare for when dead zones reach their shores.

Lake Erie is periodically affected by oxygen-poor hypoxic zones, also known as “dead zones” for how few things can survive in them. These zones form at the bottom layers of water in Erie’s central basin. Aside from being bad for aquatic life, hypoxic zones present a special challenge to water treatment facilities. The hypoxic zones can spread toward shorelines and temporarily impede operations for hours as treatment systems are set up to deal with the specific impacts of those conditions. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, working with the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, hopes to lend a hand to water treatment plants with an experimental early warning system that would provide advance notice of potential hypoxic events.

Oxygen-deficient water often has a lower pH balance and may have higher concentrations of metals like manganese and iron, which can cause discoloration of treated water, according to Craig Stow, aquatic ecosystems modeling researcher at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. Water treatment plants can account for these water conditions, but operators need to know about those conditions to make the necessary treatment adjustments, and it takes time to retool their systems. Right now, they get alerted only when the hypoxic water has reached the intake.

“Hypoxic water can be treated, but it requires knowing hypoxic water is present to put those treatment adjustments in place,” Stow said. “Since these adjustments are more expensive to do or counter to normal treatment goals, you don’t want to be treating water all the time as if it were hypoxic.”

Hypoxic conditions typically occur in late summer, caused by long periods of high temperatures and stormwater events that wash fertilizer and manure off farms, and sewage from combined stormwater overflows into the lake. The nutrient input stimulates algal growth, and as that algae decomposes the aerobic bacteria feeding off it consumes oxygen, reducing the levels of dissolved oxygen in the water.

Lake Erie isn’t a static body – water is constantly being churned around, and occasionally this brings the hypoxic water from the bottom layers of the central basin near the shore and to the water intake pipes located near cities. By adapting an existing Lake Erie computer modeling framework used for other types of forecasts (like meteorology), Stow believes an effective early warning system can be developed to alert water managers that a hypoxic zone could be heading toward their intakes so that managers can adjust their treatment methods accordingly, possibly up to a few days in advance.

The project got underway in 2016. In the initial stages the warning system involved taking existing models focused on water temperature and other conditions and adding hypoxia to it, but chemical and biological components – like phytoplankton growth and phosphorus inputs – will be included later.

An additional goal of the project is to determine whether adding nutrient and biological components to the model will improve the accuracy of the hypoxia simulations over a purely physical model, according to Stow. A model that includes chemical and biological components may have additional applications, such as forecasting algal blooms, which would be helpful for water managers, anglers and boaters.

Seasonal changes through 2005 show how Lake Erie’s hypoxic (low-oxygen) zone develops in the central basin in July through September
Seasonal changes through 2005 show how Lake Erie’s hypoxic (low-oxygen) zone develops in the central basin in July through September. Credit: NOAA

NOAA researchers also are reaching out to groups with a stake in such a warning system. Water treatment and management agencies, Ohio Sea Grant and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency are just some of those who could use the early warning system.

“The drinking water plant managers not only benefit from sharing operational information and research, but also by establishing lines of communication between water utilities and researchers that help identify common areas of interest,” Scott Moegling, water quality manager at Cleveland’s Division of Water, wrote in a NOAA blog post. “The end result, researchers providing products that can be immediately used by water utilities, is of obvious interest to the water treatment industry on Lake Erie.”

The current effort is focused on the US side of the lake. Stow said Canadian information isn’t available right now, but there have been discussions with Canadian agencies on collaboration efforts.

Ontario has been working along similar lines on its Lake Erie coastline, however.

Communities along the north shore of Lake Erie contend with the upwelling of hypoxic water, according to Todd Howell, Great Lakes ecologist with Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. Fish kills have been reported that were linked to hypoxic water reaching the shoreline, and the ministry has conducted water quality monitoring that has confirmed that hypoxic water is reaching the coastline. Upwelling also can push nutrients like phosphorus from the lake bottom to the surface, giving algal blooms an additional food source in the summer.

Howell said the province has acquired and deployed a real-time sensor system offshore of Port Glasgow, located off the central basin of Lake Erie. The system is designed to detect low-oxygen water and upwelling, and was first deployed in late summer 2016.

“Our intent is to deploy the system annually over the May-to-November period,” Howell said.

The Ontario Great Lakes Intake Program has routinely monitored nutrient, chemical and chlorophyll characteristics and concentrations at water intakes along the north shore since 1976. While this has not been specifically developed to detect hypoxic water, the data it has collected suggests indirectly, through phosphorus detections, that there has been upwelling occurring around some central basin water intakes. A 2015 report prepared by Freshwater Research for the ministry recommends collecting more evidence of hypoxic events along the north shore.

Since receiving funding a year ago from the NOAA Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research – which is studying hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico and other waters – Stow said his team has an early version of their dissolved oxygen model online right now. The researchers are working on predicting hypoxic zones and watching to see how reality matches the model, by using profilers and sensor strings in the lake that measure oxygen and water temperature. Those will be retrieved in the fall to refine the model. Part of the project also includes studying how these hypoxic zones form in the first place.

Stow said the early warning system could be operational within the next few years, at which point it would be run by NOAA’s forecasting unit.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Wave Warnings: Alerts for Meteotsunamis on the Great Lakes

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Waves crash into a lighthouse in St. Joseph, Michigan, off Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline. These waves are created by wind and can be devastating, but a tsunami wave caused by an atmospheric disturbance can come on suddenly
Waves crash into a lighthouse in St. Joseph, Michigan, off Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline. These waves are created by wind and can be devastating, but a tsunami wave caused by an atmospheric disturbance can come on suddenly. Credit: Tom Gill

Three swimmers were dragged a half mile out into Lake Erie by a sudden wave in May 2012. In 1954, a 3-meter wave from Lake Michigan appeared out of nowhere and swept anglers off a pier in Chicago, killing seven. These were major examples of meteotsunamis, a type of tsunami created by atmospheric conditions that prove difficult to predict and prepare for.

Meteotsunamis aren’t as well-known as their earthquake-caused tsunami counterparts but occur all over the globe, according to Frank Seglenieks, water resources engineer with Environment and Climate Change Canada. They form when a change of air pressure and jump in wind speed are pushed along by a warm or cold front over the water at the same speed and direction as the water’s own motion. As they keep pace, the water continues to absorb energy from the atmosphere. In the Great Lakes, they tend to form due to large convective storms from the southwestern end of the basin. Lakes Michigan and Erie bear the brunt of that due to their location and water depth, Segleneiks explained.

Meteotsunamis also can become more dangerous through “reflection,” says Eric Anderson, a researcher with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Water in the Great Lakes and other enclosed water bodies “sloshes” back and forth over time, raising water on one end of the lake and lowering it at the other before sloshing back again. If the meteotsunami wave hits a shoreline it can reflect back toward the other shore though this process. This happened with the three swimmers in Ohio in 2012, Anderson said, effectively decoupling the tsunami wave from the storm pressure zone that initially sparked it hours before. An enclosed space like a harbor can have its own wave resonance that can superimpose a meteotsunami on other waves if they match up, though that is seen more in the ocean than the Great Lakes.

Adam Bechle of the Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute discusses where meteotsunamis have been reported on the Great Lakes during a workshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Adam Bechle of the Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute discusses where meteotsunamis have been reported on the Great Lakes during a workshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Credit: Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research

Some estimates put the frequency of meteotsunami waves in the hundreds per year in the Great Lakes – they form primarily in Lakes Michigan and Erie, occasionally cropping up in Lake Ontario and parts of Superior and Huron – but most of those are either undetectable or only about 2 centimeters (1 inch) in size, Seglenieks said. Any tsunami larger than 30 cm (1 foot) is considered significant, and generally those are reported one to five times a year between all the lakes, according to a 2016 paper. They don’t look like a wave breaking toward the shore as much as a sudden rise in water level followed by a rapid drop.

“The biggest danger is the unexpectedness,” Seglenieks said. “If it’s stormy and windy the instinct is to not go too close to the shore and you might sit back from the pier, but the problem is sometimes they hit during perfectly sunny days in calm waters.”

Developing the ability to issue an advisory when a notable tsunami could form would be helpful for people in populated areas. That was the goal of a June workshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, hosted by the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research. Attendees sought to identify the information gaps preventing effective forecasts and alerts of meteotsunamis. Doing so requires effective modeling, detection and forecasting for weather and water conditions.

The workshop included representatives of NOAA along with its Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin, along with an expert on Mediterranean meteotsunamis from Croatia. Anderson said NOAA has the ability to detect and to an extent forecast storms and their associated atmospheric pressure changes. On the water side of things, wave models in the lakes are limited to forecasting short, choppy waves, and while lake hydrodynamic models, which focus on how fluids move, can forecast a variety of conditions they don’t pick up the meteotsunamis. Researchers discussed methods of using the existing observational infrastructure to improve those models and see if a viable forecasting system can be put together in the next few years.

Seglenieks said since the weather side of things requires such small-scale features to accurately show a tsunami forming, forecasters need good information on current conditions and a knowledge base to build forecasts. The first step is to look at models of previous tsunamis and see what indicators exist for the wave building that can be applied to forecasts.

“It takes a lot of high-resolution weather modeling, basically,” Seglenieks said.

Workshop participants also discussed how best to communicate these forecasts. Anderson said hearing the term meteotsunami may cause people to panic or write it off as nonsense, so attendees talked about an education campaign to explain what meteotsunamis are and how to react them.

Attendees at the meteotsunami workshop discuss ideas for an early warning system
Attendees at the meteotsunami workshop discuss ideas for an early warning system. Credit: Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Low Probability, High Impact: Radionuclides, Nuclear Waste and the Great Lakes

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

The Pickering nuclear generating facility in Pickering, Ontario
The Pickering nuclear generating facility in Pickering, Ontario. Credit: JasonParis

The IJC has heard from numerous people that radionuclides – essentially radioactive forms of elements often as small as atoms – should be considered for a future round of Chemicals of Mutual Concern by Canada and the United States. The comments were made at public hearings at the Great Lakes Forum in October and at public meetings around the Great Lakes in March.

So how threatening are these tiny radioactive materials? It’s complicated.

Tritium: the most numerous radionuclide in the Great Lakes

Radionuclides already exist in the Great Lakes, as a result of natural background radiation and at detectable levels resulting from fallout from global atmospheric nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s, according to Michael Rinker, who serves as the director general of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s (CNSC) directorate of environmental and radiation protection and assessment. Of these radionuclides, tritium is of particular interest because sources of tritium to the Great Lakes include natural tritium formation in the atmosphere, weapons testing fallout and operating nuclear power plants. The atomic test bombs produced tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that tends to bond with oxygen to become water; with the Great Lakes being as big as they are, tritium atoms found their way into the lakes originating from atmospheric fallout.

Tritium concentrations have been declining for decades, as tritium has a half-life of about 12 years, Rinker said. A half-life is the amount of time it takes for half of the element level or concentration to decay. Rinker said over the past half-century, tritium in the Great Lakes has likely been reduced to an average of around 6 percent of 1963 levels, the year when concentrations were at their highest, and when the Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed.

The exception is Lake Ontario, where concentrations are closer to 10 percent compared to 1963 levels due to the Pickering and Darlington power plants. These plants use a different, “heavy water” type of reactor than US plants on the Great Lakes. From 1980-1993, these heavy water reactors released more tritium into the water than boiling or pressurized water reactors used in US Great Lakes plants, according to an IJC report. The Darlington site now has facilities to treat tritium-concentrated water, and plants use containment and recovery methods to reduce the amount that escapes.

A map listing all the nuclear power plants and associated facilities around the Great Lakes
A map listing all the nuclear power plants and associated facilities around the Great Lakes. Credit: Watershed Sentinel

Even at its peak in the ’60s, tritium concentrations were well below the drinking water standards adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Canada of 7,000 becquerels (Bq) per liter, a measurement unit for radioactive decay. The United States has a standard of 20,000 picocuries (pCi) per liter, a term used by scientists to measure how much radiation – and tritium – is in the water; one Bq is equal to 27 pCi. In Canadian communities located near nuclear power plants by the Great Lakes, tritium levels are between 6-18 Bq per liter – owing to those Canadian heavy water power plants – and the lakes overall have tritiuim levels beween 3-5 Bq per liter.

Existing nuclear power plants appear to be the greater concern for people living along the Great Lakes, with fears of spills, meltdowns or nuclear waste polluting the waterways and undermining the water supply. Radionuclides in the water, including tritium, aren’t easily removed from the water, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Rinker added that historically there haven’t been major issues with radionuclides in the Great Lakes coming from power plants, which he attributes it to strict regulations and monitoring of nuclear plants in both countries.

John Keeley, spokesman for the US-based Nuclear Energy Institute, said the NRC and US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set strict limits in the amount of radioactive materials nuclear plants can release, based on the maximum possible exposure for members of the public. Typically, Keeley said, reactors release only a small fraction of that – less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the overall release limit. No reactor has ever approached EPA’s drinking water limit for tritium, Keeley added.

Rinker said that in addition to meeting regulatory limits, Canada and the United States require nuclear plant operators to improve their radiation protection measures as much as is reasonably achievable, to head off leakage and other safety issues before they can happen. For example, if a safe limit of a radioactive substance is 1,000 parts per billion (ppb) and plants are at 10 ppb, regulators would still like to see them achieve 8 or 9 ppb. Regulatory agencies also require oversight for nearly all changes at the plants – if a valve is being replaced, for example, Rinker said the process goes through a risk assessment to make sure everything that could go wrong is accounted for and prevented.

US nuclear plants also have followed voluntary groundwater protection programs since 2006 to improve the management of situations where radionuclides could get released, Keeley said. They have committed to reporting any unintended releases to local, state and federal authorities, even those below the required reporting threshold set by the NRC. Operators are required to monitor the environment around nuclear plants for radioactivity, including water supplies, shoreline sediments and food sources. These environmental reports are available on the NRC website. According to NRC staff, the reports show a few samples collected at the discharge points of power plants had very low levels of tritium, within regulatory limits. Concentrations of non-tritium radionuclides are generally non-detectable, and the quantity of radioactive materials released has been declining over time.

Both the CNSC and the NRC are regularly in contact to exchange technical information, cooperate and coordinate ­in nuclear safety matters.

“The thing about nuclear (power) is that you have to regulate very closely (to ensure there are no accidents),” Rinker said. “When everything goes fine, they’re a very clean industry. It’s just when there’s an accident that problems arise.”

A US Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector checks out the Fermi II nuclear plant in Newport, Michigan
A US Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector checks out the Fermi II nuclear plant in Newport, Michigan. Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The Deep Geologic Repository concerns residents too

Another issue that has drawn attention at IJC public meetings over the past year is Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) proposed Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) by the Bruce nuclear power facility in Kincardine, Ontario.

Currently the waste is stored on the surface in warehouses, where it poses a greater threat to contaminate the lake, according to Frank Greening, who worked as a radiochemist scientist for OPG from 1978 through 2000 before retiring . That surface storage was always meant to be a temporary solution to dealing with waste from Bruce, Pickering and Darlington, Greening said, and as such they are poorly sealed and tend to leak tritium water vapor into the atmosphere and lake. Surface storage also poses a risk in case a weather event, such as a tornado, destroys the warehouses and spreads the waste around the region. Greening opposes the DGR site.

OPG hopes to seal away low-to-mid level waste materials for thousands of years about 1 kilometer inland of Lake Huron and 680 meters (2,230 feet) deep within the DGR – further down from the Lake Huron shelf – pending federal approval by Environment and Climate Change Canada. Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna recently provided a list of questions she wanted answered before issuing a decision; OPG responded May 26. The IJC hasn’t received a reference from the governments to research the issue, nor does it have any jurisdiction – the issue is entirely before McKenna.

The binational organization SOS Great Lakes and the Canada-based Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump lists their concerns as: inadequate identification and review of alternate siting options; the proximity of the proposed DGR to Lake Huron; and the failure rate of other DGRs in Germany (using salt mines that  are in danger of losing stability) and in New Mexico (using granite, but seeing waste leak due to improperly sealed containers). The proposed DGR would be in limestone, but the group still doubts that it can be guaranteed to stay sealed for the 100,000-year radioactive life of some of these materials without radionuclides contaminating the water. They also estimate a leak could impact 40 million people in Canada and the United States, which has prompted opposition from local communities and politicians.

Greening said that while underground storage makes more sense than leaving it on the surface, the proposed site isn’t ideal. He said in the 1980s OPG hoped to bury it in the granite Canadian Shield – a rock known for being practically impermeable to water, economically unimportant and geologically stable on top of being a sparsely populated region – but was blocked when people in northern Ontario opposed it, and Manitoba passed a resolution preventing nuclear waste from Ontario being disposed of in the province. Rather than find another site on the Shield, Greening said, OPG wants to take it underground near where it already is.

“(The surface site) was never intended as a permanent storage site,” Greening said. “They’re taking the easy route of building a shaft (at the Bruce site) rather than move the stuff (to the Canadian Shield), which would cost a lot of money.”

Beverly Fernandez, spokeswoman for Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, said radionuclides entering Lake Huron from a repository 1 kilometer away at some point in their 100,000-year radioactive life is a concern that OPG has done little to mitigate. Fernandez fears this could set a precedent for disposing of nuclear waste at other Canadian and US plants in the Great Lakes basin. Additionally, scientific and environmental assessments for the other DGRs in New Mexico and Germany determined they were safe. But those DGRS have seen problems, casting doubt in her mind that the assessments for the Bruce DGR could be too optimistic.

OPG views the site as ideal, as it is not only far enough away from Lake Huron at the surface to be isolated from the water, but the depth and limestone rock formation around the site should keep radioactivity from leaking out and groundwater linked to Lake Huron from leaking in. Geologists have noted the rock layer has survived geological upheavels in the region over millions of years, and should remain stable for millions of years more.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and Environment and Climate Change Canada established a Joint Review Panel in 2012 to review the project under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and Nuclear Safety and Control Act. After public hearings and its own studies, the panel concluded that the DGR was the best solution for low-to-intermediate level waste, most of which would be safe after a century. It also found it was unlikely to impact water quality or ecosystems as long as mitigation measures are followed, such as spill response plans, monitoring, and stormwater protections.

Greening said an inventory report submitted to the Joint Review Panel by OPG underestimated the radioactivity  of waste to be stored on the site, relying on calculations rather than hard numbers that he had measured during his time there. While reviewers agreed with his assessment following an investigation, they opted to move ahead after concluding the risk of exposure for the public was still within safety margins. While he agreed, he said he remained concerned that they made a mistake and decided it wasn’t important.

OPG has countered that the report was only supposed to be an estimate and that it has continually worked toward improving that projection.

Lessons have been learned since those earlier German and US DGRs were constructed, Rinker said, based on the CNSC’s review of the proposal. And salt mines have fallen out of favor as good sites due to corrosion and geologic instability. The limestone at the proposed site hasn’t interacted with the surface or water table in more than 100 million years, and still contains residual seawater from when the continent was under the ocean that hasn’t seeped into Lake Huron or the fresh groundwater. The concrete shaft that would plug the DGR is a possible failure point, but it’s more likely carbon dioxide would escape than radionuclides, he said.

Greening said it doesn’t make sense to have waste near freshwater sources at all, since there is always some risk of contamination and there’s no need for water as coolant as there is with nuclear plants. And while OPG says they can safely drill to that depth without water filling the cracks and getting all the way down to the limestone, Greening argues the site still seems far less suited than one further from the lake simply by virtue of its geography.

Transporting nuclear waste

At the IJC’s March 28 public meeting in Buffalo, New York, several people expressed concerns about nuclear waste being transported across the Great Lakes from Ontario to a facility in South Carolina, either by truck across the Peace Bridge or by ship. Those folks, representing themselves or organizations like Sierra Club, were worried that the waste could get spilled into the environment, or be spread by an act of terrorism.

The US Department of Transportation (DOT) and NRC regulate the transit of nuclear waste in the United States and maintain that there have been no serious issues. Containers with low-level radioactive materials inside must be tested to simulate normal and rough transportation conditions, while those transporting more radioactive materials must be tested for accident conditions. Vehicles also need to stick to specified routes that minimize radiological risks, bypassing cities whenever possible, and take precautions to minimize the risk of terrorist attacks.

In the 20-year period from 1971 to 1991, 53 accidents were reported involving transportation of low-level waste, and only in four such events did the containers break and leak radiation outside of the vehicle – though they were quickly cleaned up with no noticeable increase in radiation levels, according to a state of Nevada study. For context, the US Department of Energy estimates that there are 3 million packages of radioactive materials shipped each year. The US DOT estimates that trucks move 84 percent of radioactive materials per year.

Greening said that in 2011, OPG had proposed shipping 16 radioactive steam generator tubes to Sweden for recycling and processing, but that plan was stymied based on public opposition. He said despite the CNSC licensing the proposal, fears of nuclear waste contaminating the water were strong. In the event that a tube sealed in a cask had rolled overboard, Greening added, that it was sealed and welded shut meant the risk to the public was very low, but nevertheless that risk was still too great for opponents.

Canada and the US are in discussions on whether to designate radionuclides as a Chemical of Mutual Concern (CMC) under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.   If a designation were to occur, both countries would need to work on reducing human releases of radionuclides into the environment, or unintentional exposure from products that contain radionuclides, such as some medical equipment. There is no timetable for when another round of additional CMCs could be named, though a list is in development.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

The Evolving Role of Photography in Canadian Watershed Stewardship

By Justin Langille, University of Toronto

In the summer of 2016, I took cameras everywhere as I travelled the Ottawa River to complete fieldwork for my anthropology master’s degree from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. As a documentary photographer, it was an essential part of an ethnographic research project in an unfamiliar landscape. I participated in water testing, sampling for microplastics, youth education workshops and other stewardship expeditions. As my work progressed, I witnessed the crucial role of the camera, one of the most important tools people can use to accomplish water stewardship.

A dead fish in Greens Creek, Ottawa, June 2016.
A dead fish in Greens Creek, Ottawa, June 2016. Credit: Author

In my study of the Ottawa Riverkeeper’s (ORK) Riverwatcher community-based water monitoring program, I wanted to understand how water stewardship is accomplished by social collectives. The ORK Riverwatcher Handbook contains detailed instructions on taking photos of plants and animals that indicate watershed health. Riverwatchers located throughout the watershed frequently share images of changing watershed ecosystems via their Google Group, a central channel for communication among more than 70 members. Last summer, including a photograph became a formal part of completing monthly Riverwatcher water testing protocol as the group began using the Water Rangers open data water monitoring app to document and share its work. As citizen science data becomes easier to capture and disseminate, photographs of emerging invasive species, sewage discharges or dramatic flooding provide visual evidence that can urge authorities to act.

Testing for microplastics in the Ottawa River at Westmeath, Ontario, July 2016
Testing for microplastics in the Ottawa River at Westmeath, Ontario, July 2016. Credit: Author

Groups like ORK and the Water Rangers also are actively capturing images of stewardship initiatives and practices that can help grow and sustain their organizations. Taking and sharing photos of water sampling expeditions, shoreline restorations and other projects in municipalities across North America can expose people interested in environmental issues to opportunities for action where they live.

I share images of my work in different watersheds with other photographers on Instagram, where I also follow waterkeeper collectives from across North America. Groups like Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, the Waterkeeper Alliance and others are constantly sharing photos from water testing training events, public engagement initiatives like the Watermark Project and spring shoreline cleanups. These images and their circulation through social media provide avenues to foster awareness and interventions at a critical time when climate change and other impacts are creating unprecedented challenges for watersheds.

Jordan Ross from the Water Rangers surveys nesting birds near Portage-du-Fort, Quebec, July 2016
Jordan Ross from the Water Rangers surveys nesting birds near Portage-du-Fort, Quebec, July 2016. Credit: Author

Photography, video and other media that document water stewardship initiatives illustrate the value of investing in water initiatives to funders and potential proponents of water stewardship. Some photographs from my fieldwork have been used by the Water Rangers in a report to the Ontario Trillium Foundation and others will be used by the Canadian Science and Technology Museum for public exhibition later this year.

The camera is an old technology that has long been used to make images that incite awe at the majesty of aquatic environments and provoke concern about their degradation. Photographers like Edward Burtynsky, Paul Nicklen and Sabastio Selgado are just some of the most recognizable household names known for such important work. However, the methods by which photographs are created and shared today enable new opportunities to learn about the scale and pace of aquatic change in ways that can help water stewardship initiatives gain new allies and fortify their work for an uncertain future.

Justin Langille is a documentary photographer and Ph.D. anthropology student at the University of Toronto. His work examines emerging forms of water stewardship in the Ottawa River watershed and Canada’s National Capital region.