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Perilously Low Great Lakes Water Levels

Lindsey Cole from Ontario Sailor Magazine writes:

Allan Woolnough of the Collingwood Yacht Club says sailors had better be prepared to launch later this year because low water levels continue to plague the Great Lakes, causing grave concern among the boating community.

“We’re probably going to be delayed a month,” he says, adding half the fleet isn’t going to be able to get to their slips if levels continue to decline on Georgian Bay. “Our option was really just delay.”

This revelation comes on top of a special project the yacht club and Town of Collingwood have undertaken in order to address the low water level issue. According to an update from the club in mid-April, a plan was beginning to take shape to install a 200’ floating wave break in the south harbour and relocate three main docks behind it “as an emergency measure to address the dramatically lower water levels projected for this summer,” the update reads. “The Canadian Hydrographic Service continues to forecast Georgian Bay water levels well below chart datum for the summer months.”

The Town of Collingwood is also onboard and is planning to build a 400-foot head dock that will run parallel to shore, behind the wave break. This is what the club’s three docks will attach to. 

According to the update, the docks are slated to be installed no later than June 21. The report also states the relocated docks will be in 16 to 20 feet of water.

“Everyone is anxious, of course they want to know when they will get to go in the water,” Woolnough explains, adding yacht club members are being asked to do some work on this project as part of a working club. “We’re just concerned about the amount of labour involved. The last 10 years we’ve been shuffling boats around and marking rocks.”

But what has Woolnough more concerned is the growing fear that water levels will never go back to normal and could continue to get lower.

“We’re in big trouble,” he says. 

It’s no secret that levels among most of the Great Lakes have been low, some for decades. Thus far, the trend this year isn’t getting any better.

“All the levels of all the Great Lakes are below average for this year,” says David Fay, an engineering advisor with the International Joint Commission (IJC). “It’s all dependent of course on the weather. Certainly last summer we had a huge drought. So far, we’ve had a relatively cool and wet spring.”

The commission is a collaborative effort between Canada and the United States, as each country is affected by the other’s actions when it comes to lakes and river systems along the border. Essentialy, its responsibilities include regulating water uses and investigating boundary issues. The IJC examines water level factors including precipitation and evaporation, along with runoff. It oversees three control structures that impact international water levels and flows in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. One board that acts under the IJC is the International St. Lawrence River Board of Control which ensures outflows from Lake Ontario meet the IJC requirements. 

“Lake Ontario is still below average,” explains Fay.

A report from the St. Lawrence River Board reiterates this.

“Lake Ontario is currently at its plan-specified level, but is below its long term average, as are the other Great Lakes upstream,” it reads. The level on Lake Ontario was roughly 13 cm (5.1 in) below the average level for this time of year.

“Water levels on both Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River vary considerably from year to year depending on the weather conditions,” the report continues. “The Board urges everyone to be prepared to live within the full range of levels that have occurred.”

But levels on Lake Ontario aren’t the main area of concern. While all the Great Lakes are below average, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reporting two of the lakes, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, have hit their lowest levels ever recorded. 

“They’re just such huge bodies,” adds Fay, stating once levels go down significantly it is hard to get them back up. 

A LEVELnews bulletin for April from Environment Canada also states water levels are an area that needs to be closely monitored.

“After a few months of generally wetter-than-average conditions, relatively dry conditions returned to the Great Lakes basin in March,” it states. “As is normal for this time of year, water levels on each of the Great Lakes, except Lake Superior, began or continued their seasonal rise in March, but at a slower-than-average rate due to the relatively dry conditions.”

Chuck Southam, of the Boundary Water Issues Unit with Environment Canada, says the big message to take home is that “boaters need to get up-to-date levels. Water levels vary from year to year. The lakes have a big memory. Until we have really good forecasts…It’s really difficult.”

“The low water levels are continuing this year on the upper lakes. If we see dry conditions returning we could see new record lows,” he adds. “If it’s dry it will just barely get up to chart datum. I’m really hoping we see a really wet spring.”

The publication states for the beginning of April Lake Superior was 33 cm below the beginning-of-month average (records date back to 1918 up to 2012), Michigan-Huron was 68 cm, St. Clair 34 cm, Erie 22 cm and Ontario 17 cm below average.

Southam says it’s hard to predict what could happen during the summer months. 

According to LEVELnews, it’s a question that can’t be answered with a “high degree of certainty so early into the season.”

At present, it appears the levels of Lakes Superior, Michigan-Huron, St. Clair and Erie will remain below average throughout this spring and summer. 

“Levels on these lakes will most likely be lower than they were last year, and Lake Michigan–Huron could set new record low levels if it experiences low water supply conditions,” it continues. “In Lake Ontario’s case, there is a possibility that its level could climb above average if it receives average or higher water supplies over the next few months. The current forecast also suggests that levels on Lake Ontario will be higher than they were last year.”

Brian Cumming, a biologist at Queen’s University in Kingston, says it all comes down to looking at the big picture. 

“Eire and Lake Ontario look not so bad right now,” he says, but from looking at the graphs the biggest problems are Michigan and Huron. “It all depends on what is causing the problem. Have a lot of these lakes been low before? Yeah, some of them have been.” The overall reflects the ins and outs. Temperatures are getting warmer, we have more evaporation.”

In order to counteract the warmer temperatures and evaporation, there needs to be rainfall, Cumming adds, which is a difficult thing to predict.

“The thing we know with certainty is that temperatures are going to go up,” he says.

“We’re expecting the summer to be potentially dry.”

When it comes to the long term, the experts say there is no telling what the next one to five years will bring.

“The uncerainty gets so wide. I can’t tell you,” Southam says. “We need to see some heavy rains.”

For now, he says, recreational boaters need to monitor water levels and keep abreast of the situation.

“But actual sailing, they need to get water levels and weather conditions right at that time,” he explains. “Recreational boaters definitely have to be more careful. They have to be well aware. The marina operations are struggling if they can’t get the boats on the docks.” 

Woolnough, the yacht club, and the project in Collingwood are an example of that. 

“We’re not confident the water levels are going to come back,” Woolnough says. “I don’t think this just another cycle.”

 

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