Study planned on adapting to changing Great Lakes water levels

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Great Lakes levels will continue
rising and falling in often unpredictable ways and people should learn
to deal with the changes instead of trying to tame nature with costly
engineering projects, experts said Thursday.
Donald Scavia,
director of the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability
Institute, announced a wide-ranging study of ways to adapt to
up-and-down water levels during a seminar at which about 50 Great Lakes
policymakers, scientists and advocates debated whether further efforts
to control the inland seas would be worth the trouble.
"Lake
levels are varying and they’re going to continue to vary," Scavia said.
"The question we should be focusing on is, how do you live with the
variability instead of where do you put the next dam."
The five
lakes are in constant flux, rising during spring and summer, then
dropping in fall and winter. Levels also experience periods above and
below their long-term averages that can last for years or decades. They
were unusually low during the 1960s, but by the 1980s were so high that
shoreline cottages were swept away.
One of the lengthiest
sustained slumps began in the late 1990s and bottomed out in January
2013, when Lakes Huron and Michigan hit their lowest point on record.
Since then, heavy snow and abundant rainfall have fueled such a rapid
comeback that Lakes Superior, Erie and Ontario are forecast to return to
normal this year. Even Huron and Michigan, which suffered most, have
risen substantially.
But the recovery was produced by a 15-month
wet period and winter’s bitter cold, which froze most of the lakes’
surface area and blocked evaporation. Whether the improvement will
continue or is a momentary blip in a downward spiral resulting from
climate change remains to be seen, analysts said at the conference.
Dams,
electric power plants and other infrastructure regulate the levels of
Lakes Ontario and Superior to a limited extent. Some advocates want to
build up Huron and Michigan, which are linked, by installing structures
in the St. Clair River at the south end of Lake Huron to slow the
outflow of water toward Lake Erie. That would compensate for water lost
from deepening the channel over the years for navigation and gravel
mining.
Roger Gauthier, chairman of a group called Restore our
Water International, favors that option and said there’s room for more
engineering projects as well as adapting to nature’s swings.
"The lakes have been modified by human intervention since European colonization," Gauthier
said.
Others
said such a project would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and
might have negative consequences such as damaging fish spawning areas or
causing flooding elsewhere. More scientific evidence is needed to judge
whether it’s a good idea, said Andy Buschsbaum of the National Wildlife
Federation.
In the meantime, it’s clear that levels will remain
largely beyond human control, said Lana Pollack, U.S. chairwoman of the
International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian agency that advises both
nations on boundary water issues. That means adaptability should be the
watchword for the region’s businesses, governments and shoreline
property owners, she said.
Among many options could be using
zoning ordinances or financial incentives such insurance eligibility to
discourage unwise shoreline development, while marinas could install
adjustable docks, speakers said at the conference.
The University
of Michigan study will assemble experts from a range of disciplines to
develop options for dealing effectively with rising and falling levels,
Scavia said. The Graham institute used a similar method last year for an
analysis of how "fracking," the controversial method of extracting
natural gas from deep underground, is likely to affect the state.
"We
can come up with better solutions if we better understand the science,"
said Howard Learner of the Environmental Law and Policy Center,
co-sponsor of the seminar.
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