Morgan Sherburne (231) 439-9394 - email@example.com
9:16 AM EDT, May 7, 2013
BOYNE CITY — Hundreds of Northern Michigan residents turned out to hear three groups speak to the reasons behind the declining Great Lakes water levels at the Boyne City High School's performing arts center.
Jennifer McKay, policy specialist with Petoskey's Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council; Roger Gauthier, retired senior hydrologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and current chair of a group called Restore Our Water International; and Lana Pollack, chair of the International Joint Commission, each presented.
McKay provided background to the situation, reiterating that evaporation from the lakes has continued to impact the lakes.
"Lake Michigan-Huron has been low for 14 consecutive years," she said, adding that Lake Michigan-Huron added 5 inches to its elevation since April. "But we need years of prolonged wet periods to raise water levels to average."
Gauthier is now the chair of Restore Our Water International, a grassroots, nonprofit group championing the effort to establish structures in the St. Clair River. Those structures would stem the outflow of water from Lakes Michigan and Huron.
"We're experiencing the effect of global warming," said Gauthier. "The Corps of Engineers is not saying that this is climate change, but a retired Corps of Engineer employee is telling you — yes, it is."
While the consensus among the four speakers was that excessive evaporation is driving declining levels, Gauthier focused more closely on constructing structures in the St. Clair River to stem the outflow in that system.
"Ninety percent of all the water in the Great Lakes is upstream of Sarnia (Canada) and Port Huron, and if you can't retain the water up in this part of the lakes, we're damned," said Gauthier.
Gauthier pointed to a slide during his presentation. The slide depicted a series of underwater sills — a 1965 engineering analysis from the Army Corps.
"These are speed bumps, 20, 30 of them along the river," said Gauthier. "It would provide backwater effects to hold water back. All we're saying at the moment is that it's long overdue to get these addressed."
Gauthier said construction those sills would take about 5-7 years. The Corps would have to conduct analyses ranging from environmental impact studies to navigation studies concerning the sills — and ask for between 30 and 150 million from Congress.
"But in the mean time, you might have to do something much quicker to stabilize the bottom of (the St. Clair River) if it is still eroding, and that is what we're pushing for right now," he said.
The International Joint Commission is a United States-Canadian organization formed in the early 1900s that cooperates over decisions regarding the Great Lakes and other waters along the United States and Canada border. The commission's chair, Pollack, said the commission is focusing on evaporation as the key driver of declining water levels.
She pointed the size of the Great Lakes basin — a swath of land surrounding all five of the Great Lakes that drains into the lakes.
"Look at the size of the basin and the landmass," said Pollack. "Now look at where the controls are."
She pointed out the St. Marys River, which flows from Lake Superior to Lake Huron, then the St. Clair River, which flows from Lake Huron into Lake Erie.
"There's a control here, a little pinch point known as the St. Marys River. Only so much water can pass through that point," Pollack said. "We need to use our common sense and question whether perhaps rainfall on all of this land mass and snowfall on all of this landmass and some groundwater that flows into it — then all of this evaporation on all of this landmass might have a bigger impact than what flows through (the St. Marys River) and (the St. Clair River)."
Residents who live on Lake Charlevoix attended the meeting because of impacts to Lake Charlevoix, which is connected to Lake Michigan through the Pine River Channel in Charlevoix.
Vance Wood lives in Ironton, and says his shoreline is impacted by lowered levels, particularly along the gently sloping beaches of Lake Charlevoix.
"Five inches of elevation makes a big difference — the water (along Lake Charlevoix shoreline) has gone down almost four feet," he said.
Another Ironton resident, Paul Brendtrow, agreed.
"The talk raised more questions than answers," he said.
While evaporation might have the primary impact on water levels, Brendtrow was hoping for a fix at the St. Clair River.
"If there was a way to adjust the flow on the St. Clair River, that would make some sense," he said.
Follow @MorganSherburne on Twitter.