Residents concerned about falling Great Lakes water levels were urged to share personal examples of the impact of changing water levels at a forum Wednesday.
As a result, shoreline property owners were in full force at the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center on Bayshore Road in Oregon Wednesday night.
The public joined officials from various Great Lakes agencies in filling every one of about 50 seats in the meeting room. The forum was hosted by the International Upper Great Lakes Study (IUGLS), which is conducting a study on Great Lakes water levels.
The initial focus of the IUGLS was to determine whether physical changes in the St. Clair River and other factors were contributing to changes in the levels of Lake Erie and Lake Huron.
At the meeting, excerpts about current water levels from this bi-national study in the Upper Great Lakes were presented by Dr. Gene Stakhiv, United States co-chair of the IUGLS. The study began when Canadian residents living along Georgian Bay on Lake Huron began noticing lower lake levels.
The study, which began 20 months ago, is taking into consideration the affect both man-made and natural forces were having on the Great Lakes.
The study is examining whether regulation of outflows from Lake Superior might be improved by taking into consideration changing climate, evolving interests of property owners, ecosystem, local governments, the shipping sector, and the recreation and tourism industry.
IUGLS was launched by the International Joint Commission of the United States and Canada in March of 2007. While the overall project has a five-year timeline, a final report regarding the St. Clair River question is due in June of 2009.
The IUGLS is recommending not taking any action right now to deal with possible changes in lake levels.
Residents were told that while water levels are lower than average levels, but rumors about levels “plunging” within their lifetime was false. Previous studies had indicated levels might drop between three and eight feet within 100 years, while this new study suggests that the maximum drop would be three feet.
“’Plunging’ is a term that I wouldn’t use. If it happens at all, it will be a gradual decrease like we’ve seen since the end of the Ice Age,” Stakhiv said. “In the extremes, once you get very high lake levels or very low lake levels there is very little man can do.
“It’s not something you should particularly worry about, especially in the Great Lakes because it is so big it creates its own climate,” Dr. Stakhiv continued.
“The thing is we have to adapt and there are only a limited number of ways to adapt to those types of changes. Even the historical lake level changes are difficult to adapt to.”
Dr. Stakhiv said one possible theory the IUGLS currently stands by as to why Lake Huron levels have dropped is that an ice flow in April 1985 raised water levels to record highs, but since then a decade-long drought and changing climate have continued to lower levels.
Dr. Stakhiv said that the conveyance of water in the St. Clair River did change between 1971 and 2000, but has not changed since. He attributed the change to a “variety of factors” both natural and man-made.
“Once we are able to figure out what is happening in this area of the river, we’ll be able to figure out the down-reaching effects on Lake Erie,” Dr. Stakhiv said.
He even went so far to say that sunken vessels have had an affect, leaving scour holes, or deep holes in the river, but that it has had little effect on the conveyance of water.
Dr. Stakhiv said models demonstrating that global warming was having an affect on the Great Lakes will be considered in future studies. He said this study showed that levels were not falling any faster than they had since the end of the Ice Age when glaciers started melting.
Another part of the study that deals with evaporation and the affects of a warming climate will not conclude for two years.
“In two years, we’ll be receiving information on evaporation on Lake Huron, and we’ll see the relative affect evaporation has on lake levels and see what changes to do,” Dr. Stakhiv said. “If so, we’ll support the work scientific agencies have been doing on global warming and back up their models. They have theories and they are theoretical sound, but it is still empirical data.”
Dr. Stakhiv said that other studies have indicated an increase in evaporation over the past decade, but the technology being employed now is far more advanced and will give more precise findings. Previous studies measuring evaporation have a variable of about plus or minus 30 percent.
Sandy Bihn, an Oregon shoreline resident and water keeper for the Western Basin of Lake Erie, expressed concern because the study only dealt with water levels in the St. Clair River and the Upper Great Lakes and their effects on Lake Erie. She suggested the IUGLS begun studies dealing directly with issues on Lake Erie.
“Lake Erie is so much more shallow and so much more vulnerable than the other lakes, so the impact on the lake will be much more,” Bihn said. “It would be interesting and proportional to see what’s going on because we are the warmest and shallowest.
“I’m jealous of all the studies you’re doing up there and we have a lot of issues that are going on here,” Bihn continued.
Bihn brought up the consumption of water by three Western Lake Erie power plants and the effect intake valves have on warming the water. Dr. Stakhiv told her that the consumption of nearly three billion gallons of water a day by the plants has been taken into consideration, but the warming affect has not.
Another resident showed concern that if any attempt was made to artificially raise lake levels at Lake Huron, it might cause Lake Erie levels to drop. Dr. Stakhiv assured there would be no attempt to raise the water levels of Lake Huron using man-made structures.
Study findings can be found at www.iugls.org.