Great Lakes residents clash over water levels

The Great Lakes
People around the Great Lakes are fighting over water. Complaints that levels are too high or too low are longstanding, but the debate is growing louder as a warming climate raises the specter of more dramatic changes.
Image courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers

AP Environmental Writer

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. (AP) — Brian Ramler longs for the days when his marina on Lake Huron's Georgian Bay could handle 50 boats — before water levels began dropping steadily more than a decade ago. He can accommodate fewer than half as many now and wants the government to help bring the water back.

Forget it, says Philip Lunsford, who lives on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. He recalls beach homes being washed away by high water during the mid-1980s and fears it could happen again if authorities boost the level of Lake Huron, which is connected to Lake Michigan by a 5-mile-wide straits area.

"It would be a disastrous situation," Lunsford said. "They need to keep their hands off."

In a scenario that might baffle onlookers from arid regions, people around the Great Lakes — the world's most abundant freshwater system — are fighting over water. Complaints that levels are too high or too low are longstanding, but the debate is growing louder as a warming climate raises the specter of more dramatic changes.

Now, U.S. and Canadian officials are considering an audacious and costly effort to control the freshwater seas' ups and downs in a way they never have before. A panel of scientists and engineers will release Wednesday a five-year study of options ranging from minor tinkering to a massive, $8 billion engineering project that would invite comparisons to the Panama Canal or the Hoover Dam.

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The latter alternative would involve using dams or other structures to regulate flows between all five Great Lakes. It's a long shot with few supporters but by including it in their report, the experts acknowledge it could gain traction if future water fluctuations become extreme.

"In modern times, there's not been an attempt to regulate all the lakes," said John Nevin, spokesman for the study group. "This would be unprecedented."

Even a halfway measure such as slowing the flow from Lake Huron as demanded by Ramler and others on Georgian Bay would involve a swirl of technical and political challenges. The stakes are high because variations of mere inches can have big implications for the environment, tourism and shipping.

Regardless of what the governments do, rainfall, runoff from winter snowpacks and evaporation will remain the biggest influences over water levels.

"There's always expectations that artificial structures can protect you from everything," said Ted Yuzyk, Canadian chairman of the International Upper Great Lakes Study. "It's a huge lake system and ... regulation can only take you so far. It's not like turning the tap on and off whenever you want."

Still, the system isn't entirely natural. Lake Ontario's levels have been regulated for more than 50 years by the Moses-Saunders Power Dam on the St. Lawrence River.

Hydropower turbines and gates at the border town of Sault Ste. Marie control outflows from Lake Superior, which feeds Lake Huron and eventually the other Great Lakes. Adjusting the flow makes only a slight difference, but "I get calls all the time from people wanting us to do something about water levels," said Steve Rose, operations chief for the local Army Corps of Engineers office.

People clamoring for relief from low water in sprawling Georgian Bay contend the shortage results largely from dredging by the Army corps to enlarge the shipping channel in the St. Clair River, the outlet at the south end of Lake Huron. So a man-made solution is justified, they say.

"If somebody has the ability to keep the water at a decent level by putting a dam in the river or doing something else to restrict the flow, I think they should do it," said Ramler, 53, who inherited Twin Bridges Marina from his dad and has worked there from childhood.

Lake Huron presently is about a foot below its March average, said Keith Kompoltowicz, an Army corps meteorologist in Detroit. But the situation has long been worse on Georgian Bay, said Bob Duncanson, executive director of a waterfront homeowners group.

The bay, largest in the Great Lakes, has shorelines dotted with cottages and marinas, many accessible only by water. One-time bottomlands have turned into mud flats and boats have sustained propeller damage from striking barely submerged boulders. Fish have lost spawning areas.

"Many people have had to relocate docks and boathouses," Duncanson said. "Some of the channels haven't been usable for 10 years."

The study team says putting "sills" resembling underwater speed bumps in the river could help raise lake levels, but could cost up to $200 million. Environmental groups say there are cheaper options, such as removing seawalls.

But a property owners group on southern Lake Michigan sponsored a letter-writing campaign saying higher Lake Huron water levels would bring erosion and flooding in their area. An attorney threatened legal action.

"I feel some sympathy for the people in Georgian Bay, but not enough to want to raise water levels," said Marcia Wineberg, who says mid-1980s high water washed away 100 feet of shoreline between Lake Michigan and her house near St. Joseph.

Activists briefed on the new report say it makes no significant recommendations about the St. Clair River, likely meaning nothing will be decided soon.

Yuzyk, the study co-leader, said property owners and user groups should accept that fluctuating levels are nature's way and learn to deal with them.

"Anything we do to help one side will hurt somebody else," he said. (Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)