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International Joint Commission to hold public hearing on lowering lake levels next month

The International Joint Commission (IJC) will hold public hearings next month to obtain comments on their final report Lake Superior Regulation: Addressing Uncertainty in Upper Great Lakes Water Levels.

Sierra Club warned, “The 13 years of unprecedented sustained low water levels for Lakes Michigan/Huron/Georgian Bay have had significant impacts — stranded wetlands have now converted to meadows with trees. Wetlands are needed by Great Lakes fish for spawning and or nursery habitat. Seasonal and permanent residents who depend on this water for their livelihoods have experienced near-shore algal blooms, fish kills, shorelines taken over by the invasive 10-foot-tall reed Phragmites australis and access to islands difficult or impossible. Fluctuating water levels are important for wetland health and diversity. Unless water levels are restored the low water poses a continued great threat to local ecosystems. Proper water management is key to maintaining their vitality.” To read a presentation on lowering lake levels by Sierra Club’s Great Lakes Chair, Mary Muter, click here.

They also state, “The IUGL Study Board has misrepresented their own findings to the public with the sole purpose of convincing the IJC Commissioners that nothing should be done in the St Clair River to restore Michigan/Huron/Georgian Bay water levels. Great Lakes United, US National Wildlife Federation, Alliance for the Great Lakes and all nine Sierra Club Great Lakes Chapters support gradual 25cm restoration of MH/GB water levels with a return to natural fluctuations.”

While the cause of the lowering lake levels are disputed, the New York Times has noted, “Gravel mining early in the 20th century by private companies and dredging by the Army Corps of Engineers, particularly in the mid-1960s, may have widened and deepened the St. Clair River, through which those two lakes drain into Lake Erie.”

Along with climatic factors, the International Upper Great Lakes Study has also noted that the following human factors affect water levels:
• Lake Superior outflow regulation through control structures on the St. Marys River;
• physical changes to the interconnecting channels of the upper Great Lakes;
• habitat and shoreline modifications along the banks of rivers; and
• water diversions both into and out of the basin.

Sierra Club agrees that “multi lake regulation would be environmentally very damaging and costly. The IJC Study Board besides publicly exaggerating downstream impacts of restoration did not provide any viable option for restoration. One of our engineers has designed a prototype of a solution: submerged sills installed on piers above a river bed stabilized with large rocks. These sills will allow fish to move beneath them and spawn among the rocks. They could be rotated 90 degrees as needed, or even temporarily removed, to allow more water to flow through in case of high water. To restore the 25cm (10”) lost to M/H/GB, they can hold back enough water to effect the restoration in 10 years with no permanent downstream impact and only 5-7 cm (2-3”) very temporary impact on Lakes St. Clair and Erie. There is, as the Study Board has documented, only a 5% chance of new record high water levels and a 80% chance of future record low water levels.”

The causes of the lowering lake levels reflect what Maude Barlow calls the “dueling visions” of what the Great Lakes are, and whom they should serve. In Our Great Lakes Commons: A People’s Plan to Protect the Great Lakes Forever, Barlow says, “On the one hand, the Great Lakes are seen to feed the increasing demands of a consumer-based system, modern humans have seen water as a great resource for our personal convenience and profit, not as the most essential element in a living ecosystem. So we have built our economic and development policies based on a human-centric model and assumed that nature would never fail to provide, or that, where it does fail, technology will save the day. We have polluted, diverted and mismanaged the planet’s finite supplies of water to the point that they are now dangerously close to collapse in many parts of the world. We have moved water from where it is needed to protect a healthy hydrologic cycle, to where we want it.”

She adds, “That the Seaway served economic goals from the beginning almost to the exclusion of all
others was evident with the mandate of the Moses-Saunders hydropower dam (built in the
1950s as part of the Seaway project), which required it to control the flow of the water levels
in order to promote marine traffic and trading. Before the installation of the dam, water levels on the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario water levels were dynamic and the natural flow enabled wetlands to survive by allowing shoreline seed banks to grow during periods of low water levels. Natural flows also protected access to inner marshes for fish spawning and served as protection for near shore animal activity during winter months. The new artificial controls of the water levels led to 50 years of environmental degradation of coastal wetlands says the Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeepers, and is a partial cause of the declining levels of the Lakes themselves.”

In order to address the problem of lowering lake levels in the long term we need to shift our vision of the Great Lakes to one where we recognize that the lakes belong to all living beings around the lakes as well as the ecosystem themselves and where communities have a right to say no to projects that destroy, divert or withdrawal vast amounts of the waters of the Great Lakes.

This shift in thinking is explained the report Our Great Lakes Commons where she calls for the Great Lakes to be designated a commons, public trust and protected bioregion. Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians recently ended the Great Lakes Need Great Friends tour http://canadians.org/blog/?p=15523 where we met with communities across the lakes to learn about local water issues and discuss the notion of a Great Lakes Commons.

Barlow notes, “The notion of the Commons is a very old one. A Commons narrative asserts that no one owns water. Rather it is a common heritage that belongs to the Earth, other species and future generations as well as our own…The Public Trust Doctrine underpins in law the universal notion of the Commons that certain natural resources, particularly air, water and the oceans, are central to our very existence and considered to be the property of the public, which cannot be denied access. Under a public trust regime, all competing uses of Great Lakes water should have to pass a test, not just of fairness of access, but also that they will not draw down the future capacity of the watershed. Public trust offers a body of principles that combine public good, public control and public oversight with the long-term protection of the watershed. It also sets the stage for an agreed upon “hierarchy of use,” whereby some uses of the water, such as the human right to water and water for ecosystem protection, will take precedence over others.”

Governments need to implement immediately plans to restore our lake levels. However, as governments make decisions and policies and pass budgets and legislation impacting the lakes, we must remind governments that we need to collectively shift our vision of the lakes to one that prevents further abuse of the lakes. Rather we need to implement a commons vision so that the waters of the Great Lakes will be protected for current and future generations.

In addition to calling on the IJC to restore our water levels, we encourage you to express the importance of designating the Great Lakes a commons, public trust and protected bioregion in protecting lake levels.

For the dates and locations, visit the IJC website. http://www.ijc.org/iuglsreport/?page_id=25 Comments can also be sent by mail, email and on-line until August 31, 2012.