IJC takes heat for water level recommendations 0
John Jackson, interim executive member of Great Lakes United, speaks to representatives of the International Joint Commission at a public hearing in Collingwood on a study group's recommendations with regard to water levels in the Great Lakes, Tuesday, July 17, 2012
COLLINGWOOD — For a brief moment, it appeared as though this public meeting was about to get out of hand.
About two-thirds of the way into its hearing and with about 300 people crammed into the ballroom at the Bear Estate on Tuesday — many wearing blue t-shirts proclaiming 'Restore Our Water Levels' — representatives of the International Joint Commission were suddenly faced with a cacophony of accusations of 'copping out' of their mandate to maintain water quantity in the Great Lakes. One man, seated in the front row, angrily gestured as he shouted that the IJC should be doing more to raise water levels in Lake Huron — and by extension, Georgian Bay.
It was at that point, American IJC representative Lana Pollack took over the microphone.
"I wish I had the authority to make decisions, but we (the International Joint Commission) have no spending or taxing authority," Pollack told the crowd. "You can say it's a cop out, but we don't have that authority.
"I respect your frustration and anger, but it doesn't change our authority."
And with that, order was restored.
For more than two hours, a steady stream of people — some representing themselves as homeowners on the Great Lakes, others representing groups — sat before four members of the IJC to voice their concerns with the recommendations of a study group on water levels.
The study group released its recommendations in April; its chief recommendation was to develop a new regulation plan for Lake Superior water levels. However, in spite of numerous presentations by Georgian Bay residents during that group's hearings in the region last year, a solution to increase water levels in lakes Michigan and Huron was limited to further study of the affect on lake levels by climate change, and introducing an 'adaptive management' strategy.
Water levels in Huron and Michigan have been in decline for 13 years, and are approaching the historic lows set in 1964. In July, the water level in Michigan and Huron were sitting about a half-metre below its long-term average for the month.
The idea of introducing structures to the St. Clair River in an attempt to raise water levels in Michigan and Huron, an option called for by a number of people during the study group's hearings in 2011, was determined to be technically feasible, but costly. The study group also determined that while such structures would have a positive effect on wetlands in the Georgian Bay region, it would adversely impact the spawning areas of Lake Sturgeon in the St. Clair, and result in the number of occurrences of extreme high lake levels in Huron and Michigan.
On Tuesday, commissioners heard more calls for controls on the St. Clair, which has been dredged several times by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a practice that has resulted in increased flow — and subsequently, erosion — in the river.
"It's a man-made problem, there should be a man-made solution," Jim Burns told the commissioners. "It is in the best interest of everyone to put in variable control structures (on the St. Clair)."
Thornbury resident Mike Stoneham pointed out that as a businessman, if he made a decision that ran afoul of government legislation, he would be expected to legally pay for that mistake. He said he couldn't understand why the same rules didn't apply when it came to the dredging of the St. Clair.
"If I decided to construct something, and lo and behold it didn't work out the way I thought… by law I would have made a mistake, and I would need to rectify it," he said. "Nowhere else do I know of that if you make a mistake, that you would not have to acknowledge that you screwed up."
"If mistakes were made in the St. Clair, then please correct it," said one woman. "Why all the talk, and why no action?
"When will action happen? When there is no more water?"
John Jackson, the interim executive director of Great Lakes United, urged the IJC to recommend a restoration of the St. Clair, as well as to implement a water quantity advisory board to examine changes in water levels that result from nature and human activity.
Mary Muter, a long-time Georgian Bay advocate and head of the Sierra Club Ontario's Great Lakes Section, told the IJC that water levels in Lake Huron should be increased by 25 centimetres over the next 10 years.
She also warned the commissioners about the connection between low water levels, and water quality, pointing out lower water levels in Huron and Michigan have coincided with an increase in toxic algae blooms, which in turn have resulted in substantial fish and bird die-offs.
"We want to do the right thing and we're very serious about figuring out the right thing for everyone on the Great Lakes," Canadian IJC representative Lyall Knott told the crowd. "We've not made our minds up on a recommendation, and we are struggling to find a balance that's right for this community, and your neighbours on the Great Lakes."
The IJC oversees two flow-control structures on the Great Lakes: on the St. Mary's River at Sault Ste. Marie, and at the upper end of the St. Lawrence River at Lake Ontario. Commissioners emphasized several times during the meeting that a decision to install more control structures would be that of the Canadian and American federal governments.
After the meeting, Knott acknowledged there is an "element of urgency" to getting the IJC's recommendations to government. He noted the commission has heard many of the same comments at public hearings with regard to water levels — and the role of dredging in the St. Clair — since its hearing in Sault Ste. Marie last week.
"People want us to move," he said. "All we can do is what we've been asked to do (under the 1909 treaty between the Canadian and American governments on the Great Lakes), and I'm satisfied that a decision of this body would be taken seriously by the governments."
Pollack said she appreciated that people were frustrated.
"They feel helpless because this is a loss of something that's central to their way of life," she told the Enterprise-Bulletin. "But frustration shouldn't blind us to facts and science.
"There are so many factors (to water levels)… it's incumbent upon us to understand that when we make our decisions," she said.
Tuesday's meeting was the final public hearing on the study group's recommendations, though the comment period is open until Aug. 31. The IJC expects to come to a decision, and make its recommendations to government, later this fall.