The Not-So-Great Lakes
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor, 4 March 2013The Great Lakes of the United States and Canada are becoming less so. The water levels in the Michigan and Huron lakes were at record lows in January 2013, with a mean of 576.02 feet above sea level. All the Great Lakes are below their long-term average levels. For several years, due to both the warmer climate and, more recently, the drought, the net basin supply has fallen. Evaporation has removed more water than is filled by rainfall and runoff into the Lakes.
Also, past dredging from the Lakes into rivers has drained off the water. Lake St. Clair sits between Lakes Erie and Huron. The St. Clair river flows from Lake Huron into Lake St. Clair, forming the boundary between the U.S. State of Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario. It is the channel of shipping between the upper and lower Great Lakes. Dredging, erosion, and riverbed mining in the St. Clair River have dropped the long-term average of Huron and Michigan by about 16 inches.
Snow in February 2013 helped raise the water levels a bit, but the loss of water in the Lakes is a long-term problem that will have grave effects on the economy and environment of the Great Lakes area. The low waters will hamper boating and shipping, as vessels can be damaged when they scrape the lake bottom, and propellers can break. Also affected are real estate properties that were on the shores.
Great Lakes shippers are taxed to pay for a harbor maintenance fund that included harbor dredging, but only about half of that revenue has been spent on improvements. In response to the dredging crisis, Michigan is now spending funds to dredge the shipping channels and harbors. That will help shipping, as otherwise ships have to travel with lighter cargo, making water transit more expensive.
But dredging will not help the natural environment. As the coastal wetlands disappear and the vegetation by the Lakes changes, the fish, birds, and other animals lose their habitat. As the Lakes water levels fall, the St. Lawrence River will be affected, including the spectacular Niagara Falls.
There are two causes for the lower water levels: cyclical and chronic. The water cycles create times of high and low water, and so water levels may rise somewhat in the coming years, but the evidence also indicates that climate change is causing a chronic decline.
The International Joint Commission appointed the International Upper Great Lakes Study Board to review current policies and study the changing water levels and flows in the upper Great Lakes. The Study Board’s report was published in March 2012. The study found that the drop in water levels during the past 30 years was caused by changes in the climate. This is a major shift from the 2009 report that claimed that the changes in the Lakes water level were natural. The IJC then blamed temporary weather changes and a continuing rebound in the Earth’s crust as it recovers from the last ice age.
On February 15, 2013, 96 mayors of cities by the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, representing a population of 16 million, sent a letter to president Obama and prime minister Harper to deal with the low water levels. In 2004, the Lake mayors and other officials founded a Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative that is promoting several policies to protect the waters of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.
The Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping project ( GLEAM )and other studies have concluded that the Great Lakes are warming at rates faster than the oceans. The warming waters are stimulating the growth of harmful algae and increases the damage from invasive species.
The climate change affecting the Great Lakes requires an international response. The ideal policy would be a global agreement to enact a green tax shift, replacing taxes on incomes and goods with levies on emissions. There could also be efforts to reduce the drainage along the St. Clair River and stop the spread of invasive species.
Otherwise, over the long run, the residents along the Great Lakes will be adapting to lower water levels. They can hope that greater rainfall during the next few years will carry them to the upward part of the water cycle, but they should then use that as an opportunity to confront the long-term fall in the water level.
The U.S. government should be taking the lead in promoting a green tax shift, and even better, a “prosperity tax shift” that replaces punitive taxation with market and environment enhancing levies on pollution and land value. For now, they are too busy manufacturing artificial crises such as the fiscal cliff, the sequestration budget cuts, and the eternally recurrent raising of the debt ceiling.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2010 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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