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Low Water Levels on Great Lakes Threaten Regional Economy

By Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter
6/28/2014 8:52:42 AM

Persistent low water levels on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway could cost the region's economy as much as $9.6 billion by 2030 and nearly $19 billion by midcentury if conditions continue, according to newly published research from the University of Toronto.

The findings, based on a study commissioned by the binational Council of the Great Lakes Region, showed that in January 2013, the Lake Michigan-Huron basin reached its lowest levels since the United States and Canada began measuring water levels in 1918.

Meanwhile, water levels in the St. Lawrence River, one of North America's busiest shipping lanes and a vital import-export route for U.S. food, minerals and consumer products, were below historical averages for 78 percent of all months between 1998 and 2012.

"When you look at the last 13 years, we've gone through the longest period of low water levels in our history," Mark Fisher, chief executive officer of the council, told officials gathered yesterday morning at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, according to the Canadian Press.

While scientists have been unable to pinpoint an exact cause for the lower lake levels, mounting evidence suggests that climate change has created new dynamics on the lakes with respect to precipitation, evaporation and runoff.

A freighter exiting the Port of Duluth-Superior, the westernmost port on the Great Lakes. Photo courtesy of the state of Minnesota.

Recreation and shipping take hits

According to the report prepared by the Mowat Center, an independent policy think tank at the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy & Governance, water levels have rebounded slightly this year, "aided in part by the extensive lake ice coverage and snowfall and cooler temperatures this past winter across the basin."

"But it is unclear whether or not this rebound will constitute an end of the low water trend or if it represents an outlier event, as recently suggested by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory," the authors said.

The study examined impacts across five sectors of the Great Lakes economy: commercial shipping and harbor activities, recreational boating and fishing, hydroelectric power generation, residential property values, and rural groundwater use.

By far, the greatest direct impacts from persistent low water levels will be felt by the recreation industry -- estimated at $6.65 billion by 2030 and $12.9 billion by 2050, followed by commercial shipping and port activities, which could see impacts of $1.2 billion by 2030 and nearly $2 billion by midcentury, according to the report.

Robert Lewis-Manning, president of the Canadian Shipowners Association, said in a statement that "the study makes clear that all stakeholders must act now to alter the long-term economic and environmental impacts of not dealing with low water levels."

Higher humidity, erosion and declining water quality

In the United States, the Ohio-based Lake Carriers' Association has lobbied for greater federal spending on dredging and maintenance of shipping channels to help deal with lower water levels. According to LCA's 2012 annual report, the water level in the St. Marys River by the end of 2012 was loading to less than 26 feet, compared with 28 feet or more in 1997.

"That loss of draft cost some ships more than 10,000 tons of cargo on their final voyages of 2012," LCA said.

Fisher said in a release the study's findings are an important starting point for U.S. and Canadian governments as they look for ways to adapt to or mitigate the potentially costly uncertainty and variability of future water levels in the region.

"Our region is a complex social, environmental, and economic system, bound together by our lakes and waterways," he said. "A persistent decline in water levels could have considerable impact on all facets of this system."

The Canadian report's release coincided with the closing of a three-day climate adaptation symposium in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Center issued a 13-page "synthesis report" on the expected impacts of climate change on the Great Lakes region.

Those impacts, also cited in the most recent National Climate Assessment, include increased heat wave intensity and frequency, higher humidity, increased erosion and water quality degradation due to extreme rainfall events, and even changes in the range and distribution of fish species.

"Climate impacts how we live, work and play," Elizabeth Gibbons, program manager of the federally funded research collaboration between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, said in a statement.

"Our hope is that this report will demonstrate that there is an urgent need for all of us to begin building resilience into our communities, natural systems and water management planning practices," she added. "The impacts of climate change are already being felt and will only increase in the years and decades to come."

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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