IJC Recommends Action to Investigate Restoration of Lake Michigan-Huron Water Levels

The International Joint Commission (IJC) has advised the governments of Canada and the United States that it will implement what it believes is an improved plan for regulating Lake Superior outflows at Sault Ste. Marie this year.

“Although future water levels are uncertain, we cannot ignore the damage from record-low water levels,” said Joe Comuzzi, Canadian chair of the Commission.  “From Georgian Bay to Door County, from shoreline property owners to the shipping industry, we heard calls for action, and we urge governments to act in response to our recommendations.”

The IJC says the new plan, Lake Superior Regulation Plan 2012, provides additional benefits compared to current regulation, especially during extreme water supply conditions.

In addition, the Commission recommends that the governments of Canada and the United States investigate structural options to restore water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron by 13 to 25 centimeters (about 5 to 10 inches), including a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis and a detailed environmental impact study.  

“While the improvements are modest, the new regulation plan for Lake Superior outflows is better for the environment, better for navigation and better for hydropower production,” said Rich Moy, US Commissioner.  “But all stakeholders need to be aware that changes in regulation are not the answer to the extremely low levels we are experiencing right now.”

Lana Pollack, US chair of the Commission, chose not to sign the Commission report because, in her view, it places insufficient emphasis on climate change and the need for governments to pursue and fund adaptive management strategies in the basin. She also cautioned against raising “false hopes that structures in the St. Clair River, if built, would be sufficient to resolve the suffering from low water levels of Lake Michigan-Huron, while at the same time causing possible disruption downstream in Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie.”

The Commission specifically encouraged governments to focus on options that would not exacerbate future high-water levels but that would provide relief during periods of low water.

The Commission endorses the Study Board's modeling and monitoring recommendations recognizing that critical information and tools are needed to adaptively manage this dynamic system.

In order to better understand how future water supplies may affect water levels, the Commission calls upon governments to better coordinate the bi-national collection of climate-related data and strengthen climate change modeling capacity to help improve water management.

The Commission will issue specific recommendations regarding adaptive management for the Great Lakes system following its deliberation of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Task Team final report.

“Meeting the ongoing challenges of extreme low and high levels on the Great Lakes should be guided by robust adaptive management to inform decisions, at all levels, with the best information and full community engagement,' said Dereth Glance, US Commissioner.  “Our goal is for stakeholders throughout the Great Lakes to become engaged in the process and use the latest scientific information to prepare for extreme water levels and storms.”  

“We commend and thank the Study Board and the more than 200 experts who worked on this project,” said Lyall Knott, Canadian Commissioner.  “Their report advances scientific knowledge and provides governments with a solid basis for action.”

The IJC's advice to governments is in response to the findings and recommendations of the International Upper Great Lakes Study. Originally focused on updating the regulation plan for Lake Superior outflows, the five-year Study was expanded to include an examination of whether physical changes in the St. Clair River were affecting the level of Lake Michigan-Huron. The Study also looked at various engineering options for restoring Lake Michigan-Huron levels, including approximate construction costs and both positive and negative impacts.

Prior to making these recommendations to the governments, the Commission thoroughly reviewed more than 3,500 comments received from the public, including those provided at 13 public hearings held throughout the upper Great Lakes basin last summer.  Further information about the study, including technical documents, peer reviews and a “decision tree” tool describing how the Study Board reached its findings and recommendations are available at www.iugls.org.