Water Thief is Climate, St. Clair Study Claims

A public hearing that the International Great Lakes Study Committee originally didn’t even plan on holding turned out to have more depth than any other, study officials said Tuesday.

More than 70 people attended the meeting at the Door Community Auditorium July 7 to see a presentation of the St. Clair River draft report by Dr. Eugene Stakhiv, Co-Chair of the International Upper Great Lakes Study. The audience came well-armed with information and questions for Stakhiv.

John Nevin, the study committee’s policy advisor, said the evening featured “the most different, interesting, and provocative questions of all the other hearings combined.”

The St. Clair River spans just 97 miles, never comes into contact with Lake Michigan, but it has been the centerpiece of speculation about the drop in water levels over the last decade.

The $3.6 million study of the St. Clair riverbed that Dr. Stakhiv led was released in May to much scrutiny. The study, under the oversight of the International Joint Commission (IJC), a bi-national board that oversees U.S. and Canadian boundary waters, set out to determine whether dredging of the St. Clair by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1962 led to further erosion of the riverbed, in the years since, draining more water from Lake Michigan and Huron.

The 1962 dredging was the last of nearly a century’s worth of major alterations to the river for mining and navigational purposes. The Corps has confirmed that that work increased the conveyance, or outflow, of water from Lake Huron (which is essentially the same water body as Lake Michigan) into the St. Clair, and subsequently, into Lake Erie, resulting in a 16-inch drop in the water levels of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

The IUGLS study said ongoing erosion is not the primary reason for the plunge in water levels. They study authors said erosion since 1962 accounts for no more than 4 – 5 inches of the water loss, and blames the rest on climate changes, particularly a drop in rain and snowfall, and a 1984 ice jam on the St. Clair River that it says sped the outflow of water by creating more pressure. Stakhiv said that same ice jam, the largest on record, likely backed up water into Lake Michigan and Huron, contributing to the lakes reaching their highest levels on record in 1986.

Though the IJC hoped the report would put the St. Clair speculation to rest, it instead inflamed critics. The report was released before it was peer-reviewed, and the authors did not release the scientific data that it says backs its conclusions. Suspicions were also raised when the committee did not schedule any of its initial 14 public hearings on the study for any communities along Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan shoreline. Perhaps most controversial is the committee’s delay in releasing a report that supposedly conflicts with its findings by Baird and Associates, the same firm that performed a study in 2005 that said ongoing erosion is the major culprit in the drop in lake levels.

Stahkiv said the Baird report would be released later in the week, but said it relied on flawed data from 1971 to reach their conclusions.

“They used whatever information they could get their hands on,” he said.

Stakhiv said Baird’s scientists did good work and the faulty data was no fault of theirs, but in the end, the IUGLS committee felt its information was better.

“We were seeing these big discrepancies using their data in our models,” he said. “We use consistent models, they do not.”

Mike Kahr, a public engineer and owner of Death’s Door Marine services, argued that with the constant fluctuations in lake levels and the economic impacts those changes cause, it’s time to consider a control structure to keep lake levels consistent. Stakhiv said it has been discussed at several points in the past, but the question has always been what the trigger point is that makes you implement such a device.

The lakes have been altered over the past century by numerous dredging projects, locks, channels, and controls. Each effort to fix one problem or benefit one area inevitably has an adverse impact somewhere else, Stakhiv said.

“It is impossible to find the golden mean,” he said. “We have proposed fixes, but when we go to the public, almost invariably they say, ‘do nothing.’”

Stakhiv said the past 200 years have actually been a very stable period in the history of the Great Lakes, and said if you look back thousands of years there are fluctuations measured in meters, not feet.

Though the study did not pinpoint a culprit to attack for the drop in water levels, Stakhiv said the work contributed by the 100 contributing scientists was not a waste.

“As a scientist I can say we’re leaving behind a positive legacy,” he said. “For a limited amount of money, we have elevated the scientific basis for Great Lakes management exponentially. This is the most comprehensive study that has been done on the Great Lakes, ever.”

He made a plea to citizens to push Congress to maintain a level of funding to maintain the tools and continue monitoring of the lakes after the entire study is completed in 2012.

Phase II of the study focuses on Lake Superior, but will also further the work on Lake Michigan and the St. Clair. Stakhiv said one part will be the creation of a natural flow plan to figure out what the lakes would be like if no regulation or alterations had ever taken place, and what the environmental and economic impacts would have been.

The draft report of phase two of the study is expected in the middle of 2011.

To read and comment on the International Joint Commission’s St. Clair River Study, visit The public comment period ends August 1. The final report of phase one of the study is scheduled to be released Oct. 1.