Preparing for Extreme Water Level Lows – and Highs – with Adaptive Management

IJC staff
April 04, 2013
Low lake levels on Lake Michigan

The public has seen historic lows on the Great Lakes in recent months. Now comes a draft Adaptive Management Plan to address extreme lows --- and highs --- in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system.

The draft Adaptive Management Plan, released for public comment March 15, is a response to a changing climate and the limited ability to alter lake levels through regulation of flows from Lake Superior and Lake Ontario. It anticipates a future with extremes.

“Our climate is changing and increases in temperature and alterations in patterns of precipitation are likely to affect water levels in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River,” says Debbie Lee, U.S. co-chair of the bi-national Adaptive Management Task Team.

“There is strong evidence that in the future we will experience extreme water levels – both high and low – that are outside the historical range seen over the past century. Indeed, we have seen record low water levels this past January on Lakes Michigan and Huron.”

The Adaptive Management Task Team is seeking public comment on the draft Adaptive Management Plan until April 15.

Following public comment, the Task Team will revise the Plan and forward it to the IJC for its consideration.

low lake levels mission point sea grant

Low lake levels on Lake Michigan. Credit: Michigan Sea Grant.

The most recent IJC studies on lake levels – the International Upper Great Lakes Study and the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Study – both concluded that adaptive management is the best way to address the uncertainties associated with climate change and the potential impacts from extreme water levels.

Adaptive management uses the information obtained from long-term monitoring and modeling to support the evaluation of plans, policies and practices and adjust them as knowledge improves or as conditions change. 

“The proposed Adaptive Management Plan is based on working collaboratively with Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River partners to gather and share critical information over time, assess the information with state-of-the art tools, develop adaptation strategies, measure our collective success in managing the impacts of extreme water levels and adapt accordingly,” explains Canadian co-chair, Wendy Leger.

The Adaptive Management Plan has two elements:

  • The ongoing review and evaluation of the effectiveness of the regulation plans at meeting their intended objectives
  • Collaboration on developing and evaluating solutions to problems posed by water level conditions that cannot be solved through lake regulation alone.

The collaboration aspect aims to improve the understanding of changes in climate, water levels and the risks associated with changing water levels; improve the tools for forecasting changes in climate and water supply; provide tools for developing and evaluating options for addressing water level issues; develop and measure performance indicators to evaluate solutions to water level issues; ensure that critical water level-related information is readily available; and engage stakeholders on water level-related issues.

“The Task Team believes the proposed Adaptive Management Plan is a cost-efficient and effective way to support decision-making aimed at reducing the risk to communities, the economy and the environment from extreme water levels,” Leger says.

IJC staff