Low water in Great Lakes means high costs for Canada: expert

OTTAWA –Steadily dropping water levels in the Great Lakes threaten to leave the Canadian economy high and dry as shipping routes evaporate and water dependent industries shut down, costing billions of dollars, according to one expert.

“The economic well-being of Ontario largely hangs on the ability to get product to market and that relies on shipping, shipping relies on water,” said Bob Duncanson, executive director of the Georgian Bay Association, an umbrella group of cottage associations.

Duncanson was being interviewed on the Global News program The West Block with Tom Clark.

Water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are now at record lows, falling 1.5 metres from the highest water mark, recorded in 1987. The lakes are expected to lose up to three centimetres in the next month alone placing them more than an inch below the lowest-ever recorded levels back in 1965.

Story continues below advertisement

Ships carrying product from mineral-rich Northern Ontario to Eastern Canada and the Atlantic Ocean are having a harder time finding safe passage from the lake head in Lake Superior down to the St. Lawrence River as routes become riddled with rocks and lake beds rise up several feet, particularly in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

Already, ships have had to carry a quarter less than their maximum load in the middle of last summer, Duncanson said, adding that since then, the water level has decreased another 20 inches.

According to numbers from the Georgian Bay Association – named for a bay in Lake Huron – a one foot drop in water levels in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan costs the shipping industry $40 million a year, as they have to lighten their loads to stay afloat in shallower water. Reverting to rail transport, according to the numbers, would cost an additional $3.6 billion a year.

Duncanson said it’s a reality that threatens Central Canada’s economy and would send financial shockwaves around the country.

“This summer the shipping companies are going to be hurting badly. Their customers are going to be hurting badly. Every year we let this go on unaddressed is going to cost this Canadian government,” he said.

The environment minister’s office didn’t seem to think the levels were out of the ordinary.

Story continues below advertisement

“The low water levels we are seeing today are within the range of fluctuation that the lakes have experienced in the recent past,” said Adam Sweet, a spokesman for Environment Minister Peter Kent.

Sweet’s numbers don’t float with what observers are seeing out on the water.

“I don’t know what chart he is looking at but the charts I see which come out weekly from the U.S. corps of engineers shows you that Michigan (and) Huron are one inch below recorded history. That’s not in the normal range of fluctuation,” said Duncanson.

After The West Block aired on Sunday, Conservative cabinet minister Tony Clement, who represents several Great Lakes communities, tweeted: “@TheWestBlock these levels are def out of the ordinary & are a concern to us all.”

The federal government is also awaiting a study on water level conditions done by the International Joint Commission – a bi-national body that manages waterways that flow across the border between the United States and Canada.

Along with the threats posed to shipping, the recreation industry along the Great Lakes is being beached by lower water levels.

There are 10,000 cottages on the shores of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, whose residents contribute $100 million annually to local economies. But as lake levels go down and the waterfront recedes, so too does the value and the use of cottages.

Story continues below advertisement

Boaters are losing routes as they become riddled with rocks or simply dry up. The $88 million sport fishing industry is also at risk as the wetlands necessary for pike, bass and pickerel to spawn are disappearing.

Man and nature combined to wreak havoc on one of Canada’s most economically valuable waterways.

Rain has been scarce in the summers and snow has been scant in the winter. Higher temperatures have propelled evaporation and reduced ice cover.

Climatologists are now predicting lower water levels will be 85 per cent more likely in the future than higher water levels.

Add to that the significant engineering projects like dredging the St. Clair River, that helped create the St. Lawrence Seaway and suck water out of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

“St. Clair River is ground zero. You’ve created a superhighway for water conveyance through that point,” Duncanson said.

Duncanson and other stakeholders recently met with several cabinet ministers to urge them to work together with the Americans as part of the International Joint Commission to find a solution.

One proposed solution, drawn up in the 1990s, was to backfill the St. Clair River with rocks and gravel until waters returned to a normal range.

Story continues below advertisement

Duncanson said he would welcome a control mechanism being built in the St. Clair River that would allow authorities to manage flows out of the central lakes. Advocates would also like to see better water management, retention ponds and more monitoring.