We Want to Hear from You About Record High Water Levels

By Wendy Leger and Arun Heer

survey glam
The survey is online. Credit: Tungilik

2017 has been a challenging year for property owners and businesses located along the shoreline of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. An extremely wet spring led to record high water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, which resulted in flood and erosion damage to a number of shoreline properties.

The IJC’s Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee is responsible for gathering information that will support the IJC in its review of the plan for managing the flow of water from Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence River as undertaken at Cornwall, Ontario, and Massena, New York. Given the extremely high water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River in 2017, the GLAM Committee is seeking input from shoreline property owners and businesses to better understand what happened out there, who and what was impacted, where impacts occurred, and how much damage was caused.

To do this, we are gathering information from a variety of sources. This includes seeking direct input from shoreline property owners. The GLAM Committee is working with Conservation Ontario to conduct an online survey to ensure all impacted shoreline residents and businesses have an opportunity to describe what happened to their properties.

This will complement results from an earlier survey conducted this summer by Cornell University and New York Sea Grant of shoreline properties along the US side of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. While the focus of the GLAM survey is to capture missing Ontario and Quebec information, owners of New York state properties who did not get an opportunity to respond to the earlier Cornell-Sea Grant survey, or who have more to tell, are welcome to respond. If you have property on Lake Ontario or the St. Lawrence River and you suffered damage as a result of the high water levels this year, we want to hear from you.

The GLAM survey asks a variety of questions on the extent of flooding, erosion, damage to shoreline structures, and related damage to residential and business shoreline properties. There is also an opportunity to upload pictures to document the extent of flooding/erosion impacts on shoreline properties. Adding pictures is optional, but encouraged.

The GLAM Committee will use the survey results along with other information from federal, provincial, state and local sources to summarize the impacts and challenges caused by this year’s record-high water levels on the shores of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River and report the results to the IJC. The information also will be used to improve estimates of potential impacts should similar conditions occur in the future.

The survey is available in English and French at this link.  There are about 15-40 questions depending on extent of damage being reported, and the survey should take about 10-25 minutes to complete.  Please share this article with anyone you know who has property along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. The more that people share and contribute, the more we can learn.

The deadline to take the survey is Dec. 1, 2017.

Wendy Leger and Arun Heer are co-chairs of the GLAM Committee.

Invasive Eurasian Tench Threatens Lake Ontario

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

invasive Eurasian tench
The invasive Eurasian tench was introduced to North American waterways as a game and food fish in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The fish has recently been found in the St. Lawrence River. Credit: Invadingspecies.com

Eurasian tench, an invasive species found in Canada and the United States, has been rapidly expanding its range into the St. Lawrence River in recent years. Its upstream spread has reached as far west as Lake St. Francis in southeast Ontario Great Lakes researchers, scientists, and resource managers are concerned the tench could wreak havoc on native fish and their habitat if it enters the Great Lakes.

Tench are native to Europe and western Asia, and were introduced to North America by the U.S. Fish Commission in 1877 for use as a food and sport fish, according to the US Geological Survey. That effort continued into the 20th century, but in most areas where the fish was introduced, it did not become established. However, a population introduced illegally to the Richelieu River by an unlicensed fish farm in 1986 has spread rapidly to the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain, according to McGill University Ph.D student Sunci Avlijas, who has studied the tench.

Ever since the fish were first detected in the St. Lawrence River in 2006, Avlijas said, a monitoring program run by the Quebec government and commercial fishermen has been in place. The population has grown exponentially every year between 2009 and 2014. They’ve also spread downstream on the St. Lawrence toward Quebec City and upstream toward Lake Ontario.

“We’re concerned about it moving toward the Great Lakes since the tench prefers slow-moving waters in wetland areas, and there are many such habitats in the Great Lakes,” said Avlijas, whose findings were presented at the International Association for Great Lakes Research conference in June 2017. “(Once) tench enter the Great Lakes there’s the Bay of Quinte, which is even better habitat than we find in the St. Lawrence.”

Once established in an ideal environment, tench form dense populations. Avlijas said tench will eat a variety of macroinvertebrates – zooplankton, mollusks and mussels, insects, and crayfish – mainly from the water bottom, but in calm waters they’ll even go to the surface for food. They also tend to kick up mud and sediment, reducing water quality. Aside from direct competition with native fish for food, tench also carry non-native parasites that aren’t known to be present in the Great Lakes, Avljias said, making them potential disease carriers for native fish. Tench also are known for eating zooplankton that can keep algae in check, potentially worsening the amount and size of harmful algal blooms.

What’s more, they can survive in low-oxygen environments, and cover themselves in mud to survive outside of water for a limited period, allowing them to be introduced into new water bodies, Avlijas said. There have been documented cases of tench being mailed in wet sacks and arriving alive a day later.

“They’re a prime candidate for being transported by people,” she said.

Tench compete with native fish for food and habitat in nearshore regions, and can cause water quality issues as they dig through mud
Tench compete with native fish for food and habitat in nearshore regions, and can cause water quality issues as they dig through mud. Credit: Sunci Avlijas

While tench are eaten by native fish like walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and bowfin, once they grow longer than about 12 inches (30 centimeters), they become too large for most predators to consume. Avlijas said this has happened in Lake St. Pierre, where the fish are abundant.

The extent to which tench could impact the Great Lakes is still debated, but it’s predicted they could become established here, said Jeff Brinsmead, senior invasive species biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

While most Great Lakes states don’t ban tench, Wisconsin has a prohibition on the species dating back to when its own invasive species rule went into effect in 2009. Under the rule, the transportation, possession, transfer and introduction of Eurasian tench is illegal in the state. According to Joanne Haas, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources public information officer, tench had been stocked in some lakes in the past, and has been known to exist in surrounding states like Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan – albeit with few reproducing populations. Wisconsin is still concerned about reproductive potential, however, and sees tench as a potential competitor to minnows and native sportfish.

Michigan also has laws making it illegal to transport live specimens of tench, with civil fines up to $10,000. It’s a prohibited species in the state.

While tench are not regulated as an invasive species in Ontario, rules that apply to all fish species in the province also apply to the tench: a fish can only be released into the water body it was found in unless the releasing person or organization has a license. The use of tench as a baitfish is also illegal in the province, and residents are asked to alert the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry if tench are found in the wild by calling the Invading Species Hotline at 1-800-563-7711, or going online to www.EDDMapS/Ontario. Illegal activities involving tench can be reported to the ministry’s enforcement branch at 877-TIPS-MNR (877-847-7667). More information can be found on Ontario’s Invading Species Awareness Program website.

Once an invasive species becomes established in a new environment, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate. However, it may be possible to slow or block the spread of the species. Education and outreach are critical to ensure that people are aware of the rules that apply to moving live fish. Brinsmead said that since tench are related to Asian carp, it’s possible that similar techniques could be effective in containing the spread of tench, like electric barriers. However, testing specific to tench hasn’t been done yet, and Brinsmead noted that other species – like the endangered American eel – travel through the St. Lawrence River too, so any measures to block tench would need to keep the passage of these species in mind.

Avlijas suggested that to limit the spread, people throughout the lakes follow provincial and state regulations.

“People just consider it non-invasive because after its (legal) introduction it was not spreading,” she said. “It was ignored for a long time.”

adult tench 27 inches
An adult tench can grow up to about 27 inches (70 centimeters) long. Credit: Sunci Avlijas

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

Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River Levels Rise Following April Rains

By Jacob Bruxer, International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

A series of storm events passed through the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system from April 4-10, resulting in significant precipitation across the region. Some eastern parts of the Lake Ontario basin received as much as 80 millimeters (3.2 inches), while areas around the St. Lawrence River near Montreal saw as much as 90 mm (3.5 inches) during the same series of events.

Total precipitation accumulation, April 4-10. Credit: Environment and Climate Change Canada
Flooding near Rideau River, Ottawa, Ontario, on April 10. Credit: David Fay, IJC

With the ground already fully saturated, the recent rain, coupled with snowmelt in some areas, resulted in high amounts of runoff and rapidly increasing streamflows across the basin. Flood warnings were issued by many agencies in Canada and the US, and many reports of localized flooding have since been received.

Daily Lake Ontario levels. Credit: International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board
Daily Lake Ontario levels. Credit: International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

The wet conditions have resulted in rapidly rising water levels throughout the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River system. Lake Ontario’s level has risen approximately 19 centimeters (7.5 inches) since April 4, increasing the risk of storm damages and leading to concerns among many lake riparians.

Daily St. Lawrence River levels at Lake St. Louis. Credit: International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board
Daily St. Lawrence River levels at Lake St. Louis. Credit: International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

Downstream of Lake Ontario on the St. Lawrence River, levels at Lake St. Louis near Montreal, Quebec, have risen almost twice that amount during the same period, by about 37 centimeters (14.6 inches), due to rapidly rising Ottawa River and other local tributary flows. To prevent Lake St. Louis levels from rising further and causing more extensive damage, the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board reduced outflows from Lake Ontario in accordance with Plan 2014, in effect since January.

Lake St. Louis flooding begins at a level of 22.19 m (72.80 feet), on April 17, 2008. Credit: Rob Caldwell, International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board
Lake St. Louis flooding begins at a level of 22.19 m (72.80 feet), on April 17, 2008. Credit: Rob Caldwell, International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

Plan 2014 sets flows to balance the risk of flood damages, both on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River downstream, by keeping the level of Lake St. Louis below a given threshold for a corresponding Lake Ontario level. As the level of Lake Ontario rises, the threshold level on Lake St. Louis also rises, allowing more water to be released from Lake Ontario.

Recent water levels of Lake Ontario and Lake St. Louis in comparison to Plan 2014’s tiered “F-limit” rule. Plan 2014 prescribes outflows from Lake Ontario that attempt to balance the impacts of high levels both upstream on Lake Ontario and downstream on the St. Lawrence River. Credit: International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board
Recent water levels of Lake Ontario and Lake St. Louis in comparison to Plan 2014’s tiered “F-limit” rule. Plan 2014 prescribes outflows from Lake Ontario that attempt to balance the impacts of high levels both upstream on Lake Ontario and downstream on the St. Lawrence River. Credit: International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

However, it’s important to note that while Plan 2014 tries to balance these impacts, it cannot and does not eliminate the risk that high levels may occur during periods of extreme weather like we’ve experienced recently. In fact, no regulation plan can do so.

To illustrate the limitations of regulation, consider that it would have taken an increase in outflow of more than 6,000 cubic meters per second (211,900 cubic feet per second) above the average flow since April 4 of 7,010 cubic meters per second (247,600 cubic feet per second) to have maintained Lake Ontario at a stable level. A flow increase of that magnitude would be nearly impossible to achieve, physically. It also would cause levels at Lake St. Louis to rise more than 1 m (3 feet), resulting in catastrophic flooding throughout the lower St. Lawrence River.

Extremely high water levels are a concern to all riparians throughout the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system. While impossible to avoid entirely, balancing the risk of high levels and associate impacts, both upstream and downstream, is a key aspect of Plan 2014.

Jacob Bruxer is the alternate regulation representative of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board and senior water resources engineer at the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Regulation Office, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Cornwall, Ontario.

New Plan 2014 Protects People, Environment and Economy on Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River

By Gordon Walker and Lana Pollack, IJC co-chairs

After 16 years of scientific study, public engagement and consultation with governments, the IJC is moving forward with Plan 2014.

Plan 2014 is a modern plan for managing water levels and flows on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

Since 1960, the flow of water from Lake Ontario has been regulated at the Moses-Saunders Dam, located at Cornwall, Ontario and Massena, New York, following requirements in the IJC’s order of approval. While natural factors such as precipitation, runoff and evaporation predominate, regulation can substantially affect the levels and flows of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

The need for an update became clear in the 1990s when property owners, recreational boaters and others voiced increasing dissatisfaction with the current regulation plan that was developed in the 1950s. The IJC initiated a study in 2000, which the governments of Canada and the United States funded at about US$20 million. The study directly involved more than 200 technical experts and stakeholders to evaluate hundreds of alternatives. Following the study, the IJC continued to seek a solution that addressed public concerns and balanced the diverse interests. Few water-level management decisions have ever received this degree of scrutiny and fine-tuning.

Plan 2014 will continue to protect the people who live and work on these waters by reducing the severity and duration of extreme high and low water levels. Under Plan 2014, the most extreme high water level on Lake Ontario is expected to be about 6 centimeters, or 2.4 inches higher than under the current plan.

While floods will occur under any regulation plan, regulation has greatly reduced the severity of flooding throughout the system. On Lake Ontario, regulation has eliminated 98 percent of the economic costs associated with flooding. Plan 2014 will continue to protect homes from flooding.

By far the largest economic cost to shoreline property owners is maintaining shore protection structures, such as rock revetments and sea walls. On Lake Ontario, the current plan reduces these costs by about $20 million per year. Plan 2014 will continue to reduce these costs by about $18 million per year. The economic costs associated with shoreline erosion will change very little under Plan 2014.

On Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River, Plan 2014 will allow for more natural variations in levels to foster the conditions needed to restore 26,000 hectares, or 64,000 acres, of coastal wetlands. Thriving wetland habitats support highly valued recreational opportunities, filter polluted run-off and provide nurseries for fisheries and wildlife.

The range of water-level fluctuations, environmental conditions and coastal impacts on the lower St. Lawrence River, below the Moses-Saunders Dam, will remain essentially unchanged.

In most years, recreational boaters on Lake Ontario and the upper river will find that Plan 2014 provides greater water depths in the fall, extending the boating season and making it easier to pull boats out at the end of the season. Plan 2014 also increases hydropower production and is more reliable in maintaining system-wide levels for navigation.

Plan 2014 further prepares residents on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River for the future in a number of important ways. The plan performs better by reducing impacts under changing climate conditions compared to the current plan. In addition, conditions related to fluctuating water levels, such as costs to maintain shore protection structures and the health of coastal wetlands will be monitored on an ongoing basis.

The process to update the regulation of water levels and flows began with the realization that the current plan no longer meets the needs of the people and environment of Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River. Now that the governments of Canada and the United States have concurred with the IJC’s proposal, we look forward to better serving our two countries under Plan 2014, which will take effect in January. The IJC will also monitor and assess conditions on an ongoing basis to track whether Plan 2014 performs as expected.

Gordon Walker is the chair of the IJC’s Canadian Section.

Lana Pollack is chair of the US Section.

Where are Water Levels Heading on the Great Lakes?

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

lake michigan beach water levels great lakes noaa
A Lake Michigan beach located near Frankfort, Michigan, in September 2015. Credit: NOAA

Forecasting agencies in the United States and Canada expect Great Lakes water levels to remain near or above their long-term average for the next six months.

Water levels are measured on the International Great Lakes Datum, defined as the height above sea level at Rimouski Quebec on the St. Lawrence River estuary. According to the coordinated, binational forecast at the beginning of July, Lake Superior is expected to remain about 6 inches, or 15.4 centimeters, above its long-term average for this time of year through the summer, before falling closer to average levels in the fall. While this forecast is based on normal weather conditions in coming months, lake levels could be higher or lower depending on whether we have a wetter or drier than normal summer and fall. Long-term averages are based on data going back to 1918.

Lake Michigan-Huron, which have a common level due to their connection at the Straits of Mackinac, is expected to be 10-12 inches (30.8 cm) above average in the summer before falling closer to average in the fall. Lake Erie also is expected to be within 1 foot above average in the summer before ending closer to 8 inches, or 20.32 cm, above average in the fall. Lake Ontario’s July level is 1 inch (2.54 cm) below average for this time of year and is expected to remain close to average in the fall.

Jacob Bruxer, Environment and Climate Change Canada senior water resources engineer, said Lake Ontario’s comparatively lower water levels are due to the warm, dry weather conditions around the lake that started around March. Bruxer is also a member of the IJC’s International Lake Superior Board of Control and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee.

“Those conditions would be bad if we started at average levels, but we’re right around average,” Bruxer said. “We’re not seeing any significant concerns to shipping or recreational boaters.”

The higher water levels on Superior, Michigan-Huron and Erie mean some boat launches could be underwater and beaches are smaller than they would be with lower levels. On the flip side, boaters should have plenty of depth to get their boats into their docks, and anglers may find more coastal areas to fish than they would otherwise. Bruxer added that high levels can lead to greater erosion along bluffs and shorelines due to waves and storms.

Drew Gronewold, a hydrologist at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan, explained that the Great Lakes typically follow a seasonal cycle where water levels rise in the spring from runoff and peak in early summer. The lakes then fall in the autumn and winter months as evaporation — caused by temperature differences between the warm water and cool air — picks up, reaching their lowest point around January and February.

As of mid-July, Gronewold said there’s no indication that the autumn dip will be stronger than usual in the lakes, or that water levels will increase – something that occurred in the autumn and winters of 2013 and 2014 on Lake Michigan-Huron and Lake Superior. Bruxer said the lakes are expected to remain either near or slightly above seasonal averages for the foreseeable future.

Coordinated six-month forecasts of Great Lakes water levels are published online each month by the US Army Corps of Engineers and Environment and Climate Change Canada (via the Canadian Hydrographic Service). The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also provides these forecasts on its water level online viewer each month. Forecasted water levels are determined using binational data and several different models that account for possible variations in evaporation, precipitation and runoff on the lakes over the coming months.

While forecasts are typically only for a six-month period, the Army Corps of Engineers has recently developed a 12-month probability outlook.

Lauren Fry, civil engineer with the Corps, said the model provides potential outcomes given climatic scenarios, developed based on current conditions and similar existing historical weather data. For example, with the strong El Niño cycling over the past winter, Fry said the agency used data from  similarly strong 1982 and 1997 El Niño events to determine a range of potential lake level impacts from October 2015 until September 2016. The most recent one-year outlook from April suggests higher-than-average water levels will most likely continue until April 2017.

water levels measured feet meters great lakes michigan huron graph
Water levels are measured in feet or meters above sea level, with data compiled by US and Canadian organizations. The green line represents forecasted water levels, while the red line indicates recorded points for Lakes Michigan and Huron as of June 30. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

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

 

Invasive Grass Carp Spawning in Sandusky River Leaves Tough Questions

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

During a research trip over the summer of 2015, a University of Toledo graduate student discovered grass carp – an invasive species of Asian carp – spawning viable eggs in the Sandusky River.

Fortunately, the grass carp is not the worst of the Asian carp species: the invasive bighead and silver carp that now dominate the Mississippi River and its tributaries will directly outcompete native fish for food, including popular fishing targets and prey fish like yellow perch.

sandusky river
The Sandusky River. Credit: Holly Embke

Holly Embke’s discovery of eggs around Fremont, Ohio, was not the first indication that grass carp were breeding in the waterway, as juvenile fish were discovered there in 2012. It does stand as the first confirmation of spawning in the Great Lakes basin, however.

Embke explained that it is legal in some Great Lakes states to buy sterile grass carp for vegetation control, as they are voracious herbivores. When the fish escape they can find their way into the Great Lakes, where they have been found in all but Lake Superior. Those purchased were all thought to be “triploid” and sterile, and did not directly compete with any native species.

When she found the juveniles in 2012, however, they were “diploid,” or capable of reproducing. Embke went on the Sandusky River one to three times a week between June and August 2015 with bongo nets to try and scoop up eggs – reasoning that water temperatures seemed to be warm enough that the fish would try to spawn — while also setting light traps to try and catch juvenile carp.

“In the Sandusky we thought they would spawn in this one area of the river close to Fremont, Ohio, because it fit the characteristic spawning sites that they would use in their native area, where it’s shallow and rocky,” Embke said.

While they failed to catch any juvenile carp, Embke said they caught seven eggs in nets and one, randomly, in a light trap downriver. All the eggs were fertilized and in varying stages of development, she added.

grass carp eggs sandusky river
Grass carp eggs collected from the Sandusky River. Credit: Holly Embke

Embke already has a second round of surveying underway in the Sandusky this year and hopes to narrow down the spawning location to better determine where juvenile carp might be located and caught.

Managing the carp is important, especially if they are reproducing in the basin. Embke said that the grass carp appetite for aquatic plants coupled with larger numbers of fish would negatively impact habitat for waterfowl, insects and other nearshore fish, as well as increase soil erosion and reduce overall water quality due to plant removal.

Jeff Tyson, Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Lake Erie Fisheries Program administrator, said that response and emergency action plans are in the preliminary stages but the state should have something together by 2017 or 2018 to contend with grass carp. At the moment, he said, the DNR simply doesn’t have enough information about the species in the river and where it spawns to form a meaningful response. Even though they have reported sightings going back to the early 1980s, it wasn’t until around 2011 that Ohio started documenting fish sightings. In the meantime, the DNR is trying to determine exactly where grass carp are found in the Sandusky and where they spawn.

The Ohio researchers are working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to tag carp and use that information for sampling data. Tyson said the state also is interested in any grass carp specimens caught by anglers for research purposes. You can report a catch or sighting at ohiodnr.gov/reportais.

A grass carp. Credit: USDA APHIS PPQ
A grass carp. Credit: USDA APHIS PPQ

A solitary adult grass carp also was caught by a commercial fisherman in the St. Lawrence River in May 2016, sparking concerns that the invasive species had made its way into the waterway. Jacques Nadeau, communications director for the Quebec Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks, said that single 20-25 year-old fish seems to be an isolated case, and didn’t appear to have a chance to lay eggs. The province has budgeted CDN$1.7 million until 2018 to continue surveying the waterway and prepare an emergency response if additional grass carp are found.

The IJC supports an ecological separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River to prevent the spread of invasive Asian carp to the basin. This includes using barriers to keep the fish from reaching the lakes.

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