"The historic changes and dredging of the St. Clair River over the years has resulted in changes to the riverbed that has increased the amount of water going down the river, carrying more and more water out of Michigan and Huron, through the lower Lakes, and out to the ocean. This water is irreplaceable," explains Roger Gauthier, Lead Hydrologist for the Great Lakes Commission. "It has reached a point where the damage is profound. It is now threatening the hydrological integrity of the entire upper Lakes."
Since 1970, the drainage hole, which continues to grow larger, has resulted in an overall water level decline of nearly two feet, or 60 centimeters, in Lakes Michigan and Huron and Georgian Bay. If put together in one place, that two foot loss would be the size of a block of water one mile high and four miles long by four miles wide.
"We're seeing drastic sustained decline in the Michigan-Huron system at the same time that Lake Erie is rising," said Bill Bialkowski, the Engineer who conducted the new GBA research. "This is indicative of water loss independent of naturally occurring fluctuations or those due to global warming. Research is showing us that this is a persistent, unprecedented water loss."
These alarming findings come as the International Joint Commission (IJC) prepares to begin its Upper Great Lakes Study, which will examine the St. Clair drain hole and other possible causes to the water level crisis. The study has met with some criticism and controversy among advocates, as it is being led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environment Canada, which are failing to acknowledge the danger of the situation.
IJC studies of this nature often take more than six years, which advocates and scientists insist is too long to wait. According to engineers, Lakes Huron and Michigan will lose another 12 centimeters, or about four inches, if the water loss is allowed to continue for more than five years.
"Water level deficits over the past two seasons have had major negative effects in the shipping industry," said William Hryb, general manager, Lakehead Shipping Company Limited. "Additional trips by vessels because of lighter payloads lead to higher production costs. This is an enormous economic burden few ship owners and operators can afford."
The new GBA research uses water level data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab that extends through February 2007--data that was not available when the original Baird Report was released. According to the original 2005 Baird Report, the rapid water loss is due to a number of factors, with bottom erosion of the St. Clair River being the major factor. Much of this erosion is a consequence of navigation dredging conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that took place in the river during the 1960s. The Corps designed structures to remediate anticipated adverse impacts of this dredging at that time, but the project was never completed.
Environmental warning signs including dried up wetlands, less fish spawning, and unusually shallow waterways have begun to surface in Lakes Huron and Michigan as well, leading many to fear for the overall health of the region. There are several factors that have converged to cause low water levels in the Middle Great Lakes, but the erosion in the St. Clair River stands out among these problems as a man-made issue that can be corrected fairly easily and within a relatively short timetable.
"Great Lakes water is far too precious to squander away through an increasing hole in the channel," said Joel Brammeier, associate director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "With lake levels nearing record lows, all hands on deck should be focused on plugging a gap we've known about for years."