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State to Host Great Lakes Hearings

June 18, 2008

By Dan Egan, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Jun. 18–U.S. and Canadian officials will be in Wisconsin this week for two public hearings on the persistently low Lake Michigan water levels.

The International Joint Commission, a binational group created to help the two countries manage their shared waters, is in the middle of a five-year study of how to better manage the waters in Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron.

The three big lakes have been at or near their historical lows in the past year, and the commission is trying to figure out why.

Great Lakes water levels have fluctuated wildly since recordkeeping began in the 1800s, but levels on these upper Great Lakes have plummeted unusually quickly in recent years. Lake Superior has rebounded to near-normal in recent months, but Michigan and Huron remain well below their average, despite the unusually wet weather this spring in southeastern Wisconsin.

One of the issues the commission’s team is looking at is whether erosion in the St. Clair River, the main outflow for both Michigan and Huron, is behind the persistently low levels.

The theory is that an Army Corps of Engineers dredging project in the 1960s created a faster-flowing river that’s now draining the lakes at an unnaturally high rate.

The corps has long acknowledged that the 1960s dredging project, combined with earlier dredging and riverbed mining, created a permanent loss in the long-term average of the two lakes of about 16 inches.

A group of Canadian property owners, however, funded its own $200,000 study, which shows human meddling could have cost the lakes significantly more water than 16 inches.

Weather patterns have historically been the driving force behind the fluctuations, but last fall, a group of senators, including Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, pressed the International Joint Commission to move faster on getting to the bottom of the St. Clair question.

The commission now hopes to have that phase of the study done in about a year.

One thing that could come from the study is a recommendation to put some type of control structure in the St. Clair to slow the flow and restore the levels of the lakes.

That idea is popular with some lakefront property owners and boaters, but throttling the flow on the St. Clair River could have a big impact on downstream property owners, wildlife habitat and power generation. Then there are worries about the damage that plugging the river could cause if and when Lakes Michigan and Huron rebound.

The study is also looking at how the dams on the St. Marys River are managed. The idea behind restricting and releasing flows from the St. Marys is to maintain levels on Superior, Michigan and Huron as close as possible to their historic long-term averages.

The water flowing down the St. Marys into Lake Huron accounts for about 40% of the water entering Lakes Michigan and Huron each year. Increased flows down the river can alleviate extreme low levels on those two interconnected lakes, but that can exacerbate trouble on Superior if that lake is low at the same time.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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