Great Lakes Water Levels

Ted Hsu
Comments Off on Great Lakes Water Levels

A top priority over the past several weeks for the Federal Ontario Liberal Caucus, for which I serve as caucus chair, has been Great Lakes water levels. Read our joint statement here:

Water levels in the upper Great Lakes hit historic lows this past year, 2012, with Lake Michigan and Lake Huron water levels at their lowest since record keeping began 100 years ago, and the other lakes well below average.

Impacts to the region’s economy and natural environment were outlined in a report by the International Joint Commission’s (IJC) “International Upper Great Lakes Study” published in 20121.

Not only were wetlands, fish spawning grounds, recreational boating and tourism negatively affected, with many docks rendered useless, but commercial transportation was significantly impaired. Cargo ships in these lakes, carrying mostly iron ore, coal and grain, would carry reduced loads in order to pass through shallow waters. Expensive dredging of harbours and channels may be required.

There is good reason to believe that the economic impact is severe, though there is no research yet which attaches a precise figure to the losses suffered as a result of low water levels.

Causes of the low water levels, and expected future volatility were also examined in the IJC’s study1.

There seem to be two main causes of the historic low-water levels in the Upper Great Lakes. One is erosion and dredging in the St. Clair River, whose depth has been artificially increased, and results in higher outflow to Lake Erie. The other is the rainfall volatility and greater evaporation due to global warming. Water level volatility is likely to get worse unless some steps are taken to manage it.

The Ontario caucus of the Liberal Party of Canada believes that this is a serious, long-term problem for the $5 trillion economy of the Great Lakes basin and that this issue deserves the immediate attention of the federal government. It is the federal government which will have to coordinate a solution with jurisdictions south of the U.S. border.

We believe that it is important, first of all, to quantify the economic costs of large swings in Great Lakes water levels. We urge the federal and provincial governments to take note of and consider supporting studies of these economic costs. The cost will determine what resources we should put into water level management. Costs will be felt on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border and there is no reason to doubt that the U.S. would be eager to share the expense of mitigating volatile water levels.

We urge the federal government to give special attention to the notion of an “adaptive management plan” as suggested by the International Joint Commission as a way to structure the decision-making process for the management of water levels of the Great Lakes in the face of future uncertainty and volatility of these levels.1,2

Finally, we note that the IJC recommendation to governments in response to the Upper Great Lakes Study was mentioned in  Budget 2013 even though there were no commitments to action. Now that the IJC recommendation has been published, albeit without the signature of the U.S. IJC co-chair (because she believed there was insufficient emphasis on climate change)3, and without one Canadian signature because that Commission position remains unfilled, we urge the federal government to show leadership on this issue.

1The IJC’s International Upper Great Lakes Study may be found at




For the statement in French, please click here:

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Photo credit: Sierra Club Ontario

Photo credit: Sierra Club Ontario