Adaptively Managing the Regulation of Great Lakes Water Levels

IJC staff
July 05, 2016

The IJC is responsible for regulating outflows from Lake Superior and Lake Ontario affecting water levels and flows in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. In 2015, it established a Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee, known as GLAM, to provide ongoing monitoring and assessment of these regulated outflows.

Adaptive management is another way of saying that we adjust water resource policies based on hard evidence about the how well they’re working. While people may agree conceptually on the value of adaptive management, it is difficult to do and there are few examples of its full implementation.

Water levels affect stakeholders on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system differently. High water levels can cause flooding and erosion to shoreline properties, but be beneficial for recreational boaters, commercial navigation and hydropower.

Low water levels can leave docks and boat launches high and dry and force big ships to carry less cargo, but low levels also can be beneficial for beach goers. Variability in water levels over time is natural and can improve certain environmental outcomes such as wetland plant diversity. The IJC has to consider all these stakeholders as well as the ecosystem as it regulates the outflows of Lake Superior and Lake Ontario.

The adaptive management approach was discussed during a recent webinar hosted by the Graham Sustainability Institute on “Changing Great Lakes Water Levels and Local Impacts” in a presentation given by Wendy Leger, GLAM’s Canadian co-chair. You can view the video of her presentation below. A pdf of her presentation also is available: Insights on Addressing Water Level Variability.


Over the last several decades, persistent high or low water levels have triggered multi-year binational studies to determine what can be done about the problems extreme levels cause. These studies have produced better regulation plans and models and data that support those new approaches. Traditionally, when these studies end, there is no follow-up mechanism to measure how effective the new management measures are, and no way to reconsider those measures as preferences change over time and new data becomes available. GLAM is designed to be that mechanism.

adaptive management, water level variability
A slide from “Insights on Addressing Water Level Variability.”

GLAM is supported by federal, state and provincial water agencies from both sides of the Canadian-US border. The committee does several things. It maintains and improves the models and databases developed in the studies so they can be used continuously. GLAM also is designing and executing monitoring programs with partner agencies to validate and improve specific parts of the decision support models, where sensitivity analyses showed the recommendations might change if these model elements were improved based on additional data.

GLAM is connecting people so that a wide range of decision makers can learn about developing information sooner and can act on it more expeditiously. GLAM is monitoring climate changes, starting with an effort to reduce errors in water flow and level estimates so that small trends can be identified with greater confidence. GLAM also is developing a sustainable capacity within the agencies to carry this work into the future, making sure young professionals learn from the teams formed during the big studies on water levels and flows. And because there are so few examples, GLAM is reaching out to others to share experiences in managing adaptively, helping to make a good idea practical.

IJC staff