What's Next for the Great Lakes Study?

IJC staff
October 15, 2012
Georgian Bay conditions

UPDATE: Draft Adaptive Management Plan for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River

The people have spoken. Now it’s time to make a decision about the International Upper Great Lakes Study.

If only it was that easy.

People from throughout the basin have expressed various views about the final report of the Study Board. That report recommended an updated regulation plan for the Lake Superior outflow --- but didn’t offer a recommendation on whether to pursue a water level restoration project via structures in the St. Clair River.

The IJC began soliciting public comments in June. The comment period was later extended until Sept. 30.

All told, we’ve received more than 120 online comments, and more than 1,200 additional e-mails and letters from citizens in the U.S. and Canada. That’s in addition to 13 public hearings held in July, with a total audience of more than 1,000, and a final teleconference in September. The turnout and level of interest has been impressive.

What have we heard? Most people want their water levels to be “just right,” depending on where they live.

That’s understandable, but not simple to achieve.  The IJC is committed to balance when it comes to regulation of water levels. There are various interests to consider, as defined by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 --- domestic and sanitary water uses, navigation, and power and irrigation --- along with ecosystems, coastal zone uses, recreational boating, tourism, First Nations in Canada, and Native Americans in the United States.

Then there’s Mother Nature, who has the most to do with how water levels fluctuate in the lakes, from precipitation to evaporation.

If you’ve read the summary or full report on the second and final phase of the Study, you’ll see that the Lake Superior regulation plan would bring more natural flows to the system, and do a better job at responding to extreme high and low water levels throughout the lakes.

Then there’s the St. Clair water level restoration analysis, which was done at an exploratory level in response to earlier public concern over the impacts of historical dredging in the St. Clair River.

That analysis found that it would be technically feasible to raise the levels of Lake Michigan-Huron by up to about 10 inches, or 25 centimeters.

Such a rise would relieve some of the pressure on folks in Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, where low water levels are restricting access to homes in the world’s largest chain of freshwater islands.

photo georgian bay conditions

Georgian Bay conditions, from a submission by Tina Gataveckas of Honey Harbour, Ontario.

People along Lake Michigan, however, are worried about erosion from high water levels, and their homes falling into the lakes.

photo stabilize lake michigan shoreline

Efforts to stabilize a bluff along Lake Michigan, from a submission by Mark A. and Mary S. Harris of Douglas, Michigan.

What is the IJC going to do about all of this? We will carefully consider the comments, the science, the history of dredging and the realities of climate change, along with what can, should and shouldn’t be done to best serve creatures big and small in the Great Lakes.

Is the answer to “do nothing,” as some have said? No. Can a middleground be found? Perhaps. In the end, the goal is to arrive at a solution that’s best for the overall health of the lakes and its people.

The IJC can decide to update the Lake Superior regulation plan and a related order. Most everything else, from structures in the St. Clair River to an adaptive management strategy for the future, is up to the U.S. and Canadian governments.

It’s up to IJC commissioners from the two countries to decide on what actions to take within their powers, what actions to recommend to the respective governments, and to do so in a way that’s responsible and feasible.

What happens next? Commissioners are getting into the nitty gritty --- poring over public comments, including transcripts from hearings in the two countries, some of which were held simultaneously.

An IJC executive meeting is scheduled for early December. Another IJC meeting is planned for February.

Good decisions take time. We thank the public for their contributions and their patience.


IJC staff