International Watersheds Initiative

Annual Project Summaries

2015 IWI Project Summaries 

Since 2010, the governments of Canada and the United States have invested a total of approximately $5 million in the IWI. By funding studies, decision-support tools and other work, this investment has provided the capacity to address a number of binational water-related issues.   

Key watershed issues are identified by the IJC’s various water management boards. A project proposal that addresses one or more of these issues is then developed by a board and submitted to the Commission for funding support consideration. These projects are reviewed by Commission staff and upon approval are funded.

International St. Croix Watershed Board 

St. Croix Basin Food Web Map and Nutrition 

The Board has identified as one of its top priorities to further the development of the water resources of the St. Croix River to include the improvements of the anadromous fishery. Historic changes in connectivity have resulted in a cascade of ecological effects. Aquatic systems in the Northeast are generally oligotrophic and nutrient levels were likely bolstered by historic anadromous fish runs in the spring. 

The objective of the work is to provide a critical assessment of the status of the ecosystem by providing a synthesis of species specific passage and habitat requirements and system limitations; and model the food web to document conditions in the watershed including the seasonal dynamics of water quality. A report on the progress of this project was presented at the International Association of Great Lakes Research annual conference in May 2015. 

Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River 

Great Lakes Runoff Intercomparison Project (GRIP) for Lake Ontario

The Great Lakes Runoff Inter-comparison Project for Lake Ontario (GRIP-O) aimed at applying and comparing various hydrologic models in their abilities to estimate Lake Ontario's direct incoming runoff. Despite its regulated regime, the Lake Ontario watershed revealed that it was possible to simulate runoff with very satisfying performance. The results also highlight each of the different models' strengths and weaknesses, and propose recommendations related to the more general goal of improving Lake Ontario's runoff simulation.

This work provided a comprehensive exploration of achievable hydrologic performances for the Lake Ontario watershed. For example, two lumped conceptual models used during this work were found to be useful tools, and this has allowed for the establishment of targets in terms of hydrologic performance for the newer, more sophisticated and more complex distributed models. Each of these families of models possesses its own advantages and drawbacks, and one cannot replace the other. The work presented also has allowed for a significant improvement to the soil vegetation and snow-land surface scheme, yet much work remains to be done to further improve it.

The improvements made in the lake's runoff simulation will benefit the International Great Lakes- St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee, the International St. Lawrence River Board of Control, and the Coordinating Committee for Great Lakes Basic Hydrologic and Hydraulic Data by providing them with an efficient modelling tool having various potential environmental applications in the general field of water resources management, such as Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence water level and streamflow forecasting, and climate-change impact studies.

Additional shore protection structure survey for completing LOSLR study data 

Estimates of shore protection damages evaluated within the Lake Ontario- St. Lawrence River (LOSLR) Shared Vision Model (SVM) are sensitive to assumptions about the quality and height of existing shore protection structures. A 2013 survey of some of these structures showed that most of the surveyed structures were taller than assumed in the LOSLR models; to the degree that this is true generally and could be captured in the model, overtopping damages would be reduced, and it might be that the differences between regulation rules is smaller than previously estimated. This additional shore protection structure survey is important in supporting any LOSLR decisions made by the IJC. 

The Buffalo District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used IWI funding to support additional field surveys of shore protection structures along the Lake Ontario shoreline. The final report for this project was completed at the end of 2015.

Preliminary Development of a State-Space Model for Lake Superior Water Balance Computations 

Changes in water levels on the Great Lakes are determined by a dynamic interaction among primary water budget components including over-lake precipitation and evaporation, basin runoff and groundwater flows, inflows and outflows through the connecting channels, and flow augmentations and diversions. These components are used to derive a water budget for each of the five Great Lakes.

The overall objective of this work is to provide a basis for assessing the potential utility of advanced statistical models to estimate the magnitude and uncertainty of water budgets in the Great Lakes. This initial phase involved formulating alternative discrete-time state-space models, applied through Kalman filters, and evaluating a form appropriate for application to Lake Superior. Future projects, which are currently being pursued, will involve extending this initial work to the entire Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system. By looking at the water budget components and evaluating their discrepancies systematically and simultaneously with these sophisticated statistical tools, the source of any errors or inconsistencies might be more evident, and this may help us correct such errors or target resources to these areas for improvement, and in an effort to “close the water balance. All of this, together with better observations and modelled estimates of the various components, will lead to improvements to the accuracy of our water estimates (both historical and forecasted), and the improved ability to forecast water levels and flows, evaluate regulation plan performance, and monitor the onset of climate change.

Great Lakes Evaporation Station Data 

A major task of the International Upper Great Lakes Study (IUGLS) was to improve understanding of hydroclimatic conditions in the upper Great Lakes system, focusing on the possible impacts of climate variability and climate change on future water levels. Numerous studies were conducted to examine how hydroclimatic processes affect Great Lakes water supplies and water levels. Included in this effort was the installation of two observing systems (Stannard Rock on Lake Superior and Spectacle Reef on Lake Huron) to collect meteorological data for the purposes of directly measuring over-lake evaporation. Success with using observation stations to estimate evaporation rates and improve operational hydrometeorological models in both countries during the IUGLS has led to an extension and expansion of observations to include four more sites across all five Great Lakes. Interest remains in these measurements because of their usefulness for helping to explain fluctuations in water levels, but the long-term commitment to operating and maintaining these observing systems is uncertain. 

The purpose of this project is to scope, design, and develop a custom user interface to support easy access to the evaporation data in addition to making the data searchable through the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) data portal and its supporting GEONetwork metadata catalog. 

Monitoring of Lake Ontario coastal wetland habitat in support of adaptive management 

This project will result in detailed vegetation community aerial coverage and taxonomic data referenced to elevation and seasonal water levels in eight Lake Ontario coastal wetlands. These data can be used for adaptive management monitoring and integrate into wetland vegetation community modelling in Lake Ontario prior to regulation changes. For example, the data will support the validation of the wetland component of the Integrated Ecological Response Model (IERM) used to evaluate Lake Ontario regulation plans.

In the summer of 2015, eight coastal wetlands were surveyed to provide wetland vegetation data referenced to water levels to support the modelling of aquatic ecosystem impacts from potential changes in water level regulation. The data from these surveys will be synthesized with field wetland data from 2009-2014 in a manner appropriate for comparing to the wetlands algorithm used in the IERM from the Lake Ontario- St. Lawrence River Study. 

Comparison of modeled and monitored outcomes of Lake Ontario wetland habitat in support of adaptive management

This project aims to produce an updated Lake Ontario wetland meadow marsh modelling tool that incorporates recent observed wetland monitoring data, and allows for an assessment of the actual wetland characteristics observed during recent water supply conditions in comparison to expected wetland performance indicator results from existing planning models used during the Lake Ontario- St. Lawrence River Study.  This effort will serve to evaluate the accuracy of existing meadow marsh performance indicators algorithms, transfer expertise on these evaluation tools from contractors to government agencies, and inform the broader adaptive management effort.

Extended CaPA and GEM Hindcasts of Water Supply Components in the Great Lakes Basin 

The Canadian Precipitation Analysis (CaPA) is an operational near real-time gridded precipitation product from Environment Canada available since April 2011 for North America. CaPA has generated a lot of enthusiasm in the Great Lakes area, due to its unique capability of capturing some of the precipitation features that are specific to the Great Lakes, in particular organized shallow convection events which are responsible for lake-effect snowfall. Indeed, because it uses a background field from the Global Environmental Multiscale (GEM) atmospheric model, it can represent the effects that the lakes have on the precipitation patterns, something that is very difficult to catch with the existing precipitation gauging network, as it is entirely over land. 

During the International Upper Great Lakes Study (IUGLS), it was demonstrated that GEM and CaPA can be used together to obtain skillful estimates of all three components of the net basin supplies (including basin runoff and lake evaporation, in addition to precipitation) at the monthly time scale for the Great Lakes. The objective of this project is to provide the foundations for extending CaPA and GEM hindcasts to 1983. Samples of daily analyses will be provided (one per week from 1995 until 2012). Furthermore, the added value and computing cost of extending the hindcast to either 1983 or 1995 at either 50-km or 15-km resolution will be assessed. The preliminary work is expected to be completed by the end of March 2016. 

This proposal directly supports the GLAM Committee in efforts to improve measurement and understanding of the individual components of the water supply and reduce uncertainty in hydrological conditions which could lead to better forecasting and improvements to regulation of water levels and flows in the Great Lakes- St. Lawrence River system. The project methodology also will be applied outside the Great Lakes basin in other transboundary watersheds along the Canadian-U.S. border. 

International Lake Superior Board of Control 

Compensating Works flow measurements in support of improved management of St. Marys Rapids 

As a result of the recent rise in upper Great Lakes water levels, regulated outflows from Lake Superior through the St. Marys River also have increased, and this has required increased flows through the Compensating Works at the head of the St. Marys Rapids. Starting in August 2013, when six gates were fully open (the highest gate setting since 1997), a number of concerns were raised related to the unusually high water level and flow conditions in the St. Marys Rapids, including the impact on the St. Marys Rapids fishery and recreational anglers, potential flooding of Whitefish Island, the risk of ice damage to the Compensating Works and structures in the lower St. Marys River, the impacts of “spilled” water on hydropower production, and impacts to commercial navigation. 

The Board has since worked with the IJC, the hydropower entities, and other stakeholders, to try to address these concerns, while adhering to the principles of the Boundary Waters Treaty and the Orders of Approval for Lake Superior regulation. Starting in May 2014, the Board began employing multiple partially open gates in lieu of fully open gates in order to provide a number of potential benefits in the St. Marys Rapids. Severe ice conditions in May 2014 prohibited the use of fully open gates. By partially opening the gates this reduced the amount of ice that was passed through the Compensating Works structure and reduced the risk of ice-related damages and the potential for damages to structures further downstream in the St. Marys River. Fisheries experts and recreational anglers also provided positive feedback on the potential benefits to the St. Marys River ecosystem of having the flow more evenly distributed across the St. Marys Rapids. Partially open gates can also be set with more precision, allowing for more consistent flows and a potentially reduced risk of flooding of Whitefish Island. 

As a result of these and other benefits, partially open gate settings were employed for the remainder of 2014 and the Board agreed to continue this practice again in the summer of 2015, and potentially long-term. However, one issue with this new approach is that existing hydraulic relationships and flow measurements are applicable to flow through fully open gates at the Compensating Works only, and cannot be applied to partially open gate settings. These flows constitute a significant component of the total St. Marys River flow, and as a result, understanding the relationships between water levels and flows is critical to the operation of the Compensating Works and to the determination and regulation of the total outflow from Lake Superior. 

To address this, a series of flow measurements were conducted at the Compensating Works during the summer and fall of 2015 under varying water level conditions and at various partially open gate settings. These measurements were conducted jointly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Geological Survey, and Water Survey of Canada on behalf of the International Lake Superior Board of Control, and were partially funded by the International Joint Commission through the International Watersheds Initiative program. Flow measurements were conducted at the Compensating Works over the course of a week during each of the months of June, July, August, October and November (generally near the start of each month to coincide with normal regulatory operations), and during each of these five weeks the gate settings were changed gradually in between measurements in order to allow for a variety of gate settings to be measured, but without the need for large, abrupt fluctuations in the St. Marys Rapids and potential adverse impacts on stakeholders. The measurements, along with data collected in 2014, will be used by the Board to establish and verify flow relationships, which will be used operationally to determine St. Marys Rapids flow. The measured flows also will be used in further studies aimed at better understanding the hydrodynamics of the St. Marys Rapids and the effects on stakeholders. 

Establishment of Compensating Works Gate Movement Limits to Prevent Fish Stranding in St. Marys Rapids 

Starting in the spring of 2015, the International Lake Superior Board of Control began a study, led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Detroit District, to measure and analyze flow, velocity, and water level data in the St. Marys Rapids under varying Compensating Works gate settings with the objective of establishing field-verified limits on the rate of gate changes in an effort to prevent harm to fish and other organisms caused by stranding or flushing. This study, first proposed by the Board in 2013 and partially funded by the Commission through the IWI, had been postponed due to scheduling issues and recent high-flow conditions in the St. Marys Rapids.  

As a result of continued high flows and water levels and related concerns on the impacts of large fluctuations in hydraulic conditions in the St. Marys Rapids on fish and aquatic organisms, the Board made adjustments to the gate movement limits study plan. Rather than scheduling a series of gate changes and collecting field measurements in a single week, as originally planned, the Board installed water level sensors in the spring of 2015 as soon as conditions permitted, and kept them installed for the entire season before removing them in November, prior to winter. This allowed the Board to continuously measure the effects on water levels of gate changes and natural factors (such as wind effects) and make comparisons. Furthermore, flow measurements were collected throughout the field season at the beginning of months that the gate setting of the Compensating Works was expected to be changed as a result of normal regulatory operations. This avoided any additional negative impacts from additional gate changes, while providing flow measurement information at a wider range of gate settings and flow conditions.  

The net result was  an extensive dataset of hydraulic information on the St. Marys Rapids collected in 2015, which is expected to be extremely beneficial to the work of the Superior Board, GLAM, and others interested in the effects of water levels and flows on the St. Marys Rapids. For example, the data collected in 2015 will be used to develop and calibrate hydrodynamic models of the St. Marys Rapids to further extend the analysis to a broader range of flow and water level conditions, with the objective of establishing improved operational procedures for operating gates at the Compensating Works. The data collection component of this work was completed in the fall of 2015, with subsequent modelling and analysis expected to follow in 2016. 

International Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board 

Effect of Water Management Regime on Wild Rice Production  and on Cattail Invasion into Wild Rice Stands

Water level management in the Rainy-Namakan system has detrimental effects on the existing and historical strands of wild rice within the Rainy Lake and Seine River sections of this system. This has been an ongoing concern of the Seine River First Nation as well as other First Nations in the basin. Elders of the Seine River First Nation report that rice stands have disappeared or declined in size in much of their traditional ricing areas. In 2013, no wild rice was harvested from the Rainy Lake or the Seine River. This compares to historical commercial sales of wild rice from Rainy Lake and the Seine River of up to 150,000 pounds and more than 1,00,000 pounds on Lake of the Woods. 

The loss of the wild rice harvest is primarily attributed by the wild rice industry to high water levels on Rainy and Lake of the Woods. Another consideration is the recent invasion of wild rice strands in Northwestern Ontario by the exotic perennial narrow leaf cattail. The competitive advantage of this exotic cattail over wild rice has not been quantified but it is suggested that it has contributed to the total eradication of southern wild rice in the lower Great Lakes. On Rainy Lake, there seems to be recognition of the detrimental effects of these cattails on wild rice. 

This project seeks to quantify how water level fluctuations affect wild rice productivity at critical stages of development. It is also examining the effectiveness of cattail removal via cutting in relation to the recolonization of wild rice. This project is taking place over two years from 2014- 2016. 

Seine River Temperature Project

In an effort to better understand the correlation between water levels and temperature and fish spawning in the Rainy Lake system, the International Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board needs water level, temperature and fish data in the Seine River upstream of Rainy Lake. The data will be used to develop a correlation between the dates of sturgeon spawning obtained from the fish data. 

The underlying premise of this initiative is that water resources and environmental problems can be anticipated, prevented or resolved at the local level before developing into international issues. 

This project will help define the spring spawn for Seine River sturgeon through surrogate environmental indicators. This monitoring will respond to requests from the Seine River First Nation to look into the impact of dam operation on sturgeon and to repeated requests from the dam owners to demonstrate the effectiveness of a peaking window based on water temperature. The year 2015 marked the fifth field season of this project. 

2015 Update of Upper Rainy River Numerical Model

In light of a planned three-year gate refurbishment project at the Fort Frances dam on the Rainy River, an existing 2-D hydrodynamic model was updated with recent measured water level data in order to simulate the conveyance losses due to gate closures during refurbishment. In addition to this, the update  extended the range of the interactive visualization tool that is publically available on the Watershed Board’s website and includes simulation results of the 2014 high water levels and the overtopping of the dam spillway. 

Development of an international, web-based StreamStats model for the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Basin

The objectives of this study are to (publish a report that describes the development and application of new regression equations for estimating peak-flow frequency statistics for the combined areas of the Lake of the Woods-Rainy River basin and the state of Minnesota, and release to the public a StreamStats application for the basin. The report will (a) document the analytical techniques used for annual series peak-flow frequency computations, basin characterization, regionalization, and development of equations for estimating peak-flow frequency statistics on small drainage basins (less than 7,800 square kilometers or about 3000 square miles); (b) present peak-flow data and basin characteristics at streamgages; (c) discuss techniques for estimating peak flows at ungaged sites on small, unregulated streams; and (d) describe methods used to estimate peak flows at ungaged sites that are near streamgages. 

During 2015, streamgages in and near the study area were reviewed for period of record, length of record (at least 10 years), regulation, and documenting peak-flows outside of recorded period of record. The Canadian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment Canada provided streamgage data through 2013. 

Accredited Officers of the St. Mary and Milk Rivers 

St. Mary and Milk Rivers Natural Flow Data Warehouse

A major task of the St. Mary and Milk Rivers Technical Working Group (SMRTWG) is to identify data, procedural or technological limitations and barriers that restrict the determination of the natural flow in the St. Mary and Milk rivers and their tributaries in the state of Montana and the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The focus of the SMRTWG is on the evaluation and development of alternative methods for determining consumptive use for the Milk River basin, conducting a sensitivity analysis on the components used in the MilkNat2010 natural flow model, and assessing alternate methods of determining evaporation and evapotranspiration losses in the Milk River channel. 

The purpose of this project is to scope, design, and establish a database (with a custom user interface) to house time-series natural flow data for the following transboundary river basins that are administered by Accredited Officers of the St. Mary and Milk Rivers as defined by the 1921 Order of the International Joint Commission respecting the St. Mary and Milk rivers. 

Milk River Consumptive Use Study

This project will consolidate previous and recent work relating to the apportionment of the Milk River and its Saskatchewan (or eastern) tributaries. In particular, it will examine the elements related to natural flow and consumption considered by R. E. Thompson in a 1986 USGS report and evaluate the importance of each element. 

The objective of the project is to update the assumptions used by Thompson (1986) and to assess alternate approaches, methods, and data sources required to determine consumptive use in the St Mary and Milk River watersheds in Canada and United States, including the Milk River watershed prior to entry into Canada and the Southern Tributaries to the Milk River. 

A final report will be shared with the federal, state, and provincial agencies as well as the water user community within the St Mary and Milk rivers. 

Columbia River Board of Control 

Documentary explaining water-management issues and practices in the Okanagan/Okanogan River system

The Washington State Department of Ecology, the operator of Zosel Dam on the Okanogan River (U.S. spelling) at the outlet of Osoyoos Lake, will create a 20-30 minute educational documentary that explains how Canadian and U.S. water managers coordinate with each other and fisheries experts to assure that Osoyoos Lake levels remain within the range specified by international agreement to meet multiple human objectives while also maintaining aquatic habitat conditions favorable to salmonids. Osoyoos Lake crosses the international border and is one of several lakes in the Okanagan River (Canadian spelling) system, a tributary of the Columbia River. 

The documentary audience will be the general public. The documentary will educate Canadian and U.S. citizens about water-management issues and practices in the watershed in which they live, and create awareness of the successful collaboration among both countries, and Native Americans and First Nations. The project will emphasize the natural and human history of the area and the complexity of managing the system so it meets the needs of multiple interests that vary seasonally. 

The documentary will be posted on Washington state and IJC websites and also made available to local libraries and public schools, local TV stations, tourist visitor centers, and other venues. This project is expected to be completed in 2017.