Great Lakes Water Levels - Media Conference Call

Friday, May 14, 1999
10:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m. (EST)

Good morning and thank you for joining our briefing on water levels in the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River. I am Tom Baldini, chair of the U.S. Section of the International Joint Commission.

I would like to introduce my colleague, Leonard Legault, chair of the Commission's Canadian Section, and the panel of experts we have with us this morning: Colonel Jim Hougnon from both the St. Lawrence River and the Lake Superior Board of Control, Doug Cuthbert equally from both boards of control, Dr. Frank Quinn from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Mr. André Carpentier from the St. Lawrence River Board of Control.

For your convenience, I should mention that the full text of these remarks has been posted on our website along with key water levels data and links to websites with detailed data. Go to WWW.IJC.ORG and click on "What's New." Again, that's WWW.IJC.ORG

As you probably know, the International Joint Commission is an independent binational Canada-U.S. organization established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. It assists the Canadian and U.S. governments in managing boundary and transboundary waters along the border for the benefit of both countries in a variety of ways, including regulating the outflows from Lake Superior and Lake Ontario. It is composed of six commissioners, three from each country, who seek to achieve consensus wherever possible.

Water levels in all of the Great Lakes basin have dropped significantly since last summer. As a matter of fact, all the lakes except for Lake Erie are currently somewhere between 25 and 35 centimetres (10 to 13 inches) below their average level. There are two factors that have been driving this decline. Precipitation over the Great Lakes basin has been below average for most of the past fall and winter. In addition, air temperatures have been consistently above average for the past 12 months, leading to significant increases in evaporation.

I would like to start by saying that the International Joint Commission is keeping a close watch on the ever-changing situation and doing what it can within its power and authority to ease the hardship from declining levels water throughout the system. We are not ignoring any portion of this complex system.

The current low water situation is unusual for the recent past, when high levels prevailed. However, these levels are not unprecedented, and still lower levels have occurred during the last century - for some areas, numerous times.

A long-term perspective illustrates that, despite the limited structural controls that now exist, occasional high and low levels are to be expected. It may be advisable for those affected by current levels to consider what alternatives are available to them if water levels were to decline still further, either later this year or in the future.

I will now address succinctly the changes on each lake over the last year.

Lake Superior is currently about 20 centimetres or 8 inches below its level of last May.

Lakes Michigan and Huron have dropped about 66 centimetres or 26 inches in the last year.

Lake Erie is now about 56 centimetres or 22 inches below where it was a year ago.

Lake Ontario is 74 centimetres or 29 inches below its level of last May.

I will now ask Chairman Legault to discuss the current conditions on the rest of the Great Lakes system and the forecast for the rest of the summer, Len...

Thank you Tom,

Levels in the St Marys River, connecting Lake Superior and Lake Huron, vary between 3 centimetres, or one inch, below chart datum upstream of Sault Ste. Marie to 25 centimetres, or 10 inches, above chart datum downstream of the Sault. Chart datum is a low water benchmark, and only rarely will there be less depth available than what is portrayed on the chart.

In Lake St Clair, in the Detroit - Windsor area, the levels are currently about 53 centimetres, or 21 inches below the level of a year ago. Lake St. Clair is about 65 centimetres above chart datum.

Lower than average levels on Lake Ontario means that levels will also be below average in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River. One exception to lower levels is likely to be on the St. Lawrence River just upstream of the dam between Cornwall, Ontario, and Massena, New York. Because flows through the dam will be lower, the levels just above the dam will likely be higher than average through the summer and early fall.

In Montreal harbour, levels are currently about 1.46 metres, or 4.8 feet, below levels of a year ago. Nonetheless, levels in Montreal are still about 20 centimetres above chart datum.

The forecasts for this summer indicates that the levels of Lakes Superior, Michigan-Huron and Ontario will continue to rise in the next month or so, but are likely to remain below average. The levels of Lakes St Clair and Erie have likely reached their peak for this year and are expected to decline in the next few months. In all cases, the levels in the months to come are highly dependent on how much rain falls over the lake basins.

Before we go on with questions and answers, I would like to point out that current water levels on Lake Superior and Lake Ontario -- the only lakes that are regulated in the system -- are within the target range specified by the Orders of Approval. They, and Lakes Michigan and Huron, are currently more than a foot higher than their historical low levels. While the levels are lower than those experienced in recent years, lower water levels have occurred on each of the Great Lakes in the past. The higher levels during the recent past may have led some to expect these levels to be "normal" levels.

As my colleague said a moment ago, it may be advisable for those affected by current levels to consider what alternatives are available to them if water levels were to decline still further, either later this year or in the future. Recreational boaters are among those who may be particularly impacted. Without going into great detail, I would like to point to some of the actions that should be considered:

My colleague and I would now be happy to respond to your questions.

End of remarks.

Current conditions (as of May 7, 1999) Metric Units

Level (IGLD 1985) Difference from LTA Difference from last year Difference from lowest ever
Lake Superior 183.19 m -25 cm -20 cm +38 cm (1926)
Lakes Michigan-Huron 176.31 m -27 cm -66 cm +53 cm (1964)
Lake St. Clair 175.15 m -5 cm -53 cm +69 cm (1934)
Lake Erie 174.39 m +5 cm -56 cm +91 cm (1934)
Lake Ontario 74.70 m -33 cm -74 cm +56 cm (1935)
Montreal Harbour 6.00 m (5/5/99) -1.55 m -1.46 m  

Current conditions (as of May 7, 1999) English Units

Level (IGLD 1985) Difference from LTA Difference from last year Difference from lowest ever
Lake Superior 600.85 ft -10" -8" +15" (1926)
Lakes Michigan-Huron 578.31 ft -11" -26" +21" (1964)
Lake St. Clair 574.48 ft -2" -21" +27" (1934)
Lake Erie 572.01 ft +2" -22" +36" (1934)
Lake Ontario 245.01 ft -13" -29" +22" (1935)
Montreal Harbour 19.68 ft (5/5/99) -5.09 ft -4.80 ft  


Great Lakes Information Network Water Levels Page:
Links to many agency sites with coordinated water levels data
Historical monthly and yearly mean water level graphs 1918-1998
National Centers for Environmental Prediction:
Weather and climate forecasts and outlooks