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Georgian Bay's 'lakekeeper' says L. Huron in crisis

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Georgian Bay's 'lakekeeper' says L. Huron in crisis

by IJC's measure Faults over-dredging of St. Clair River

 

Jim Moodie / manitoulin.ca

March 5, 2008

 

 

WASHINGTON-A Georgian Bay rep who returned on Sunday from a Great Lakes summit in Washington, DC feels Canada is lagging behind the US in terms of our commitment to the continent's pre-eminent freshwater resource.

 

"The Americans are very engaged on this," said Mary Muter, waterkeeper for Georgian Bay (or Georgian Baykeeper, as the Waterkeeper Alliance prefers to call her) and chair of the environment committee for the Georgian Bay Association (GBA). "They're quite close, for instance, to getting ballast water legislation passed."

 

Ms. Muter was on hand in the US capital along with members of the Healing Our Waters Coalition-a spectrum of environmental and conservation groups-for two-and-a-half days of meetings and government lobbying that culminated with Great Lakes Day on February 28.

 

This annual occasion in the US is convened by the Great Lakes Commission, which also held its semi-annual meeting over the preceding two days. According to the commission's website, Great Lakes Day allows for "a unified expression of the Great Lakes region's priorities for legislation and appropriations to assist in protecting (the basin's) environment and sustaining our economy."

 

Other groups in Washington included the Council of Great Lakes Governors, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, the mayors of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Cities Initiative (of which Blue Mountains Mayor Ellen Anderson is a Lake Huron voice) and tribal representatives, with over 200 people in all taking part in meetings and advantage of the opportunity to meet with congress and senate members.

 

Issues on attendees' minds ranged from water levels and climate change to pollutants and invasive species. On the latter front, the US is close to passing legislation that would subject ocean-going freighters to stricter rules regarding ballast water, as it is via such ship-stabilizing fluid that invaders like zebra mussels are imported to the Great Lakes.

 

The Ballast Water Management Act, drafted last year, would require "vessel operators to conduct all ballast water management operations in accordance with a ballast water management plan designed to minimize the discharge of aquatic nuisance species," according to a summary of the legislation. As well, it would require vessels to exchange water more than 200 miles from shore and in waters more than 200 metres deep. And the discharged water would have to meet a standard 100 times more stringent than the current guideline.

 

The act was expected to come to the floor of the House of Representatives last week, but was pulled for consideration, according to story in the Detroit Free Press. Still, water champions anticipate it will receive attention in congress in coming weeks.

 

An equally if not more pressing concern for Great Lakes advocates is the drought gripping the upper lakes, with Huron and Michigan both nearing record lows. Ms. Muter and the GBA remain convinced that measures need to be taken to reduce the flow of water through the St. Clair River, and are frustrated that interim mitigation measures aren't being implemented prior to the completion of an Upper Lakes study being carried out by the International Joint Commission (IJC).

 

The IJC has frontloaded the St. Clair issue into the first two years of its five-year study, pledging to "produce a draft report a full year ahead of schedule by February, 2009, with interim progress reports throughout 2008," according to a release from the commission. "A peer-reviewed final report on the St. Clair River is expected in June, 2009."

 

Ms. Muter said her organization is "pleased they've accelerated" this portion of the study, but believes "they can still put in interim measures now while they figure out the final report. To just allow 2.5 billion gallons per day to escape through the river is totally unacceptable."

 

The GBA is also concerned that the study group will not be employing 3-D modelling in its analysis of the river. "They say they don't need it," said Ms. Muter. "But it's required to understand the complexity of the river's high flow, sharp turn and the change in sediment supply."

 

Ms. Muter elaborated that riparian dwellers along the St. Clair have, over the years, employed bedload traps to "harden the shoreline and protect it from high water," and this, in turn, has "removed significant amounts of the sand supply, which used to slow down the flow. And you can't understand that change without doing 3-D modelling."

 

Such technology was employed, Ms. Muter noted, in an analysis of contaminated sediment in the St. Clair, which the federal government is now prepared to clean up to the tune of $3.3 million.

 

In an announcement made on February 23, Environment Minister John Baird said the funding would be put towards "a sediment management strategy for the site," with remedial options to include "capping and/or dredging, disposal of contaminated sediment and long-term monitoring."

 

While Ms. Muter doesn't question the need for a cleanup of polluted matter in the river, she feels it's equally urgent to address the deepening of the channel due to dredging and scouring, which the GBA contends has contributed to the decline of Lake Huron.

 

And she says the IJC need only follow its own advice in this regard. "If you look at a Levels Reference Study they did in 1993, and the Crisis Condition Report within that, you'll see that what they define as a crisis alert condition is something we've been in since 2000," she remarked. "The bottom line is, they have already looked at this, and know what to do-they established what qualifies as a crisis level years ago, and at what point the adverse consequences warrant interim mitigation measures."

 

In other words, the IJC needn't await the findings of its Upper Lakes team before acting; the rationale is spelled out in the 1993 study-one, Ms. Muter added, that spans 1,700 pages and cost $37 million (in today's values). "How much more money and time are they going to spend studying this?" she asked.

 

While the Levels Reference Study of 1993 grew out of concerns over the high levels of 1986, its research was equally focussed on the potential for alarmingly low levels. It sets "crisis threshold limits"-both high and low-and outlines measures that should be implemented in response to such crises.

 

Lake Huron's crisis level for low water, according to this study, is 576.8 feet. As of Monday, Huron's level was 576.7 feet, and through most of January and February it was a couple of inches lower. The all-time low, set in 1964, is 576.1 feet.

 

Ms. Muter said that she's recently been asked to sign petitions regarding droughts in Australia and at Georgia's Lake Lanier. In each case, the images she's been shown of "high-and-dry docks don't look any different from the shores of Georgian Bay."

 

Yet whereas these dry spots have sparked considerable alarm among both members of the press and political leaders, "ours doesn't seem to get the same attention," said Ms. Muter.

 

Canadians, she suggested, are slower to get worked up since the country has such an abundance of lakes, and the presumption is that we will never lack for a supply of H20. Yet it's time we got worried, in her view.

 

"We need to protect this resource-the water, the fishery, and the habitat we have left," she said.

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