• Declining Lake Levels

    With the burst of warm temperatures we experienced early in the week, plenty of outdoor enthusiasts took to the lakes, rivers and woods to enjoy the balmy weather. Like plenty of my angling buddies, I headed out to enjoy some incredible steelhead fishing on local Grey/Bruce rivers. As expected, the fishing was good at more than one destination as I made the rounds from Southampton to Owen Sound and over to Thornbury. Unfortunately, even though the fishing was productive, I still ended the day disappointed and somewhat disgusted. Everywhere I fished and everywhere I stopped along the shores of Huron and Georgian Bay it became clearly evident that the water in our Great Lakes is slowly disappearing. This is not breaking news for many in the region. Those who spend time on the water or near the shoreline have obviously been noticing the fact that levels keep dropping. For recreational users, people who count on the lakes for their livelihood, and fish and wildlife populations, this trend will bring about some significant negative impacts.

    The water levels of the Great Lakes are monitored by numerous organizations. The United States Army Corps has some of the most accurate data available in terms of historic water levels on all of the Great Lakes. An online search for the most recent data indicates that Huron, by the end of November was nearly at record low levels. The scary part is that the Army Corps projects that within the next couple of months Lake Huron will drop lower than has ever been recorded in December or January.

    The biggest reason for the lack of water is the low levels, and in some periods, complete absence of precipitation since this past spring. The Lake Superior watershed received just a fraction of the snow and rain it receives annually. As the major source of water for lakes Michigan and Huron, this impacts levels on a significant scale. Locally, our region of the province saw one of the driest summers on record. Many local creeks ran dry and inland lakes throughout the region showed signs of drought as they dropped to levels many residents had never seen before. The hot dry summer we just experienced also added to the drop in water level through enormous evaporation on the lakes themselves. Consider how many rivers and creeks feed Georgian Bay and Lake Huron and you get an idea of how important precipitation is in the grand scheme of things such as a water cycle.

    Dredging of the St. Clair River downstream of Lake Huron is another factor that is drawing attention in terms of its effect on the recent drop in water levels. The Great Lakes are a historic and active shipping route for barges and ships. Keeping this major route open is paramount in an economic sense and therefore channel dredging must be undertaken. The problem is, the rate at which water flows through St. Clair increases as channels are dug deeper. Studies have shown that dredging the St. Clair has contributed to a ten to sixteen inch drop in water levels over the past 150 years. So, in the name of progress and great feats in shipping, we have essentially aided in pulling the plug on our great lakes, an act which carries some serious consequences. In addition to letting the water run out of the lakes, shipping of this magnitude and has also introduced a plethora of invasive species from all over the world to the Great Lakes, species which have decided to plant roots and make a home for themselves, so to speak.

    Human consumption is an obvious draw on water levels throughout the Great Lakes as well. As the population grows, demand for water grows. Our neighbours to the south continue to expand in size, and last time I checked, the Mississippi River (an outflow for the Great Lakes) ran right down through the heart of the United States. In Canada, we have no “shortage” of water, yet it is apparent our appetite for clean Canadian water continues to grow. Have you noticed how many different companies bottle water within a three hour drive of Owen Sound? Notice how many claim to be “spring water”? Consider where the run off from those sparkling springs is intended to go. It is no secret that water levels in Georgian Bay tributary streams are well below average lows, many below record lows. Plenty of the “sparkling spring water” is naturally destined for these creeks and rivers, instead it winds up on sale at the local gas bar for blow-out prices with your next fill up. More homes being built for more families results in one more lawn to water or another Golf Club that needs to keep the greens soft! Irrigation is required to support crops large enough to feed our growing populations. It is a never ending cycle; consume, consume, consume.

    The impact that this continuing drop in water levels has on both humans and fish and wildlife is concerning. Lower lake levels equal reduced water flow in shallow/near shore areas. This often poses health risks, as beach-goers who have encountered incidences of beach closures due to poor water quality can attest to. In terms of navigation, dropping water levels have begun to pose serious threats to mariners. Rocks which were once covered by two feet of water are now exposed. Ask any marina along the eastern shore of Georgian Bay how many props they repaired this summer. Shipping ports across the upper Great Lakes are facing the reality of having to either dredge harbours or lose industry entirely in their towns. Falling water levels also impact tourist communities along local shorelines. Boat ramps which accommodate tourists become unusable. The Bayshore boat launch and harbour area in Owen Sound is a perfect example of what is fast becoming a commonplace phenomena.

    Low water levels have an impact on local fish and wildlife as well. Many of the important trout streams along the shores of Georgian Bay have annual runs of wild steelhead. As the lake level drops, river mouth areas become impassable for migrating trout and salmon. A 16 to 20 inch drop in water level is very significant near shore where depths may only have been a couple feet of water to begin with. Plenty of shoreline wetlands and marshes, fertile bays and important habitats for shorebirds have been disappearing at an alarming rate. The shoreline area north of Sauble Beach near Oliphant is a stark example of important shoreline wetlands slowly going dry. Countless species require this type of environment to survive, birds, fish, insects and mammals are feeling the effects.

    Whether we like it or not, the lakes are dropping. History proves that this area was once covered completely in water. Obviously it disappeared, the climate changed, we had an Ice Age and the cycle continued. Lake levels will continue to fluctuate and our environment will continue to change and adapt. Still, I can’t help feeling that I suppose I should just crack another bottle of spring water and hope “Global Warming” melts the polar ice cap directly into Superior and Huron. Of course, that’s if Armageddon doesn’t come and its still a problem after December 21st.
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