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. 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 been steadily dropping since fall of last year. As a matter of fact, all the lakes except for Lake Erie are currently somewhere between 20 and 30 centimeteres (7 to 12 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 of low water throughout the system. We are not ignoring any portion of the 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 current conditions in the regulated lakes - Lake Ontario and Lake Superior.

In Lake Superior, water levels are currently at 183.17 metre or 20 centimetres below average. Lake Superior is 20 centimetres below its level of last May.

In lake Ontario, water levels are currently at 74.70 metres or 29 centimetres below average. From May 1st 1998 to May 1st 1999, Lake Ontario has dropped 79 centimetres.

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

Thank you Tom,

In Lake St Clair, in the Detroit - Windsor area, the levels are currently 6 centimetres below average for this time of year and 60 centimetres below the level of a year ago. Lake St. Clair is about 65 centimetres above chart datum. For those of you not familiar with this figure, chart datum is the figure used for regular commercial navigation. If levels drop below chart datum, ships have to lower their loads to pass through the seaway channels. Levels above chart datum are safe.

In Montreal harbour, levels are currently about 1.6 metres below average and also about 1.6 metres below levels of a year ago. Nonetheless, levels in Montreal are still about 20 centimetres above chart datum.

Lakes Michigan and Huron are currently 25 centimetres below average and 65 centimetres below levels of a year ago. These lakes remain about 27 centimetres above chart datum.

Lastly, levels in the St Marys River connecting Lake Superior and Lake Huron vary between 3 centimetres below chart datum upstream of Sault Ste. Marie to 25 centimetres above chart datum downstream of the Sault.

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 remain below average. 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 well within the target range specified by the Orders of Approval and more than a foot higher than the historical low levels of the 1930's. While the levels are lower than those experience in recent years, considerably lower water levels on Lake Ontario have occurred frequently in the past, including during the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1960s. The higher levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River over the last 27 years may have led some to expect these levels to be Anormal@ 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. 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