The International Joint Commission issued its Advice to Governments on the Recommendations of the Upper Great Lakes Study on April 26, 2013.
The findings and recommendations of the International Joint Commission are based on the results of this five-year, peer-reviewed Study published in March 2012 and informed by diverse public input, including nearly 3,500 comments. The Study Board’s work advanced our scientific understanding of complex physical processes that affect water levels and the impact of fluctuating levels on the health of the ecosystem and the Commission highlights the ongoing need to evaluate changing conditions and adjust how we live in harmony with the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem.
The Commission heard from the public about stranded docks, struggling marinas, parched wetlands, exposed shoreline protection and empty expanses of muck, rocks and weeds where families used to swim. Current record low levels on Lake Michigan-Huron have exacerbated these concerns. The Commission also heard from lakeshore residents concerned by damages from periods of high water. From the Study, the Commission learned that the latest hydroclimatic research indicates that while future levels are likely to be lower on average, the range of Great Lakes water levels over the next 30 years is expected to be similar to the past.
This means that the two federal governments must be prepared to address both low and high water levels.
As a result, the Commission:
1. Endorses Lake Superior Regulation Plan 2012. The Commission finds significant public support for implementing the new plan that delivers robust performance under a wide range of possible hydrological conditions and has begun preparation of a Supplemental Order of Approval to implement the improved plan this year.
2. Opposes further study of Multi-Lake Regulation. Consistent with previous Commission studies, the Commission finds further exploration of multi-lake regulation that includes new large-scale dams and channel enlargements is not warranted.
3. Recommends further investigation to restore Lake Michigan-Huron water levels. The deepening and widening of the navigational channel in the St. Clair River in the early 1960s resulted in an estimated lowering of Lake Michigan-Huron water levels by 13 cm (5 inches) and subsequent erosion resulted in further lowering of 7 to 14 cm (2.8 to 5.5 inches). On an exploratory level, the Study Board found that limited water level restoration was technically feasible and public support for more detailed analysis of such restoration was widespread. Therefore, the Commission recommends that the governments undertake further investigation of options to increase water levels in Lake Michigan-Huron by 13 to 25 cm (about 5 to 10 inches) and that this investigation be funded, undertaken and concluded as quickly as practicable. The Commission recognizes if such a measure is in place it could take up to a decade for its full effect on Lake Michigan-Huron water levels to occur. The Commission specifically recommends that this investigation should include:
- exploration of options that would provide relief during low water periods, but not exacerbate future high water levels; and,
- a comprehensive binational benefit-cost analysis and a detailed environmental impact study of potential structural options.
4. Endorses implementation of a comprehensive Adaptive Management approach supported by Science and Monitoring. The Commission finds that management of the impacts of Great Lakes water level fluctuations could be improved through Adaptive Management – a flexible approach already embraced by governments that provides decision-makers with monitoring and modelling information that support review and adjustment of programs and policies. The Commission intends to provide recommendations based upon the final report of our International Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Task Team. The Commission also endorses a suite of recommendations to support Adaptive Management that include periodic bathymetric surveys and maintenance of streamflow gauges in connecting channels as well as evaporation monitoring instrumentation installed by the Study.
The Commission appreciates the commitment and funding by the Canadian and U.S. governments, the service of the binational Study Board members, advice of more than 200 science and policy experts, participation by members of the Public Information Advisory Group, local officials, all stakeholders and the public that provided important insights and feedback throughout this process. The Commission is proud to highlight that for the first time, all technical reports and supporting data linked to the Study recommendations are at www.iugls.org.
Lana Pollack, U.S. chair of the Commission, chose not to sign the Commission letter. In a statement, Chair Pollack said the letter places insufficient emphasis on climate change and the need for governments to pursue and fund adaptive management strategies in the basin. She also cautioned against raising “false hopes that structures in the St. Clair River, if built, would be sufficient to resolve the suffering from low water levels of Lake Michigan-Huron, while at the same time causing possible disruption downstream in Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie.”