Where the water went: Georgian Bay and the future of the Great Lakes

Concerned about the future of our water resources? Talk to someone from Georgian Bay. They’re living in that future

Content image
Kelso Park, Owen Sound, Ontario (Photo: David Newland)

Water levels are down on all the upper Great Lakes this year. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given the widespread drought in central North America—but on Georgian Bay, the water has been dropping steadily for years, and the results, especially among the iconic 30,000 Islands, are increasingly visible.

Concerned about the future of our water resources? Talk to someone from Georgian Bay. They’re living in that future.

Cottage and homeowners have extended their docks multiple times to reach the water. Some mow lawns where there once were beaches. (The photograph above shows a vast expanse of green in downtown Owen Sound that was underwater just a few years ago.)

Marinas are constantly dealing with boat draft and dredging—not to mention the fears of declining business if fishing is affected, or if destinations among the islands are no longer reachable by boat.

For municipalities, low water levels lead to concerns about tourism, fishing, pleasure boating, shipping, and crucially, local water supply.

Environmentalists, hunters and fishermen worry about the flora and fauna in this world-renowned stretch of Canadian shoreline.

Native Americans and First Nations have called the Great Lakes shores home for thousands of years. Their concerns go beyond environmental stewardship to a cultural connection to the Lakes that is unbroken from time immemorial.

For those in the shipping industry, or those who depend on it to deliver salt, sand, silica, oil, gravel, coal, ore, or passengers, low water levels mean concerns about their own livelihoods, and the future of shipping on the Bay.

It’s worrisome. People are wondering where the water went, and whether it will return.

Why does all this matter? Because every issue that affects Georgian Bay water levels threatens the Great Lakes as a whole.

25 million people in the Great Lakes watershed all want, need, depend on fresh water. And there’s nowhere else in the world to look for it.

We’re not just talking boating water, fishing water, walking-along-the-boardwalk-admiring-the-view-water. We’re talking drinking water for millions of people. We’re talking industrial power water. The Great Lakes turn the turbines at Niagara Falls that light the streets of New York. Great Lakes water cools the many nuclear power stations dotted around the Lakes.

The Great Lakes are the heart of North America, forming nearly the entire southern border of Ontario, and providing eight U.S. states with crucial freshwater ports.

The International Upper Great Lakes Study (IUGLS) has looked at the issue and made recommendations—but those recommendations don’t amount to decisive action to curb the loss. The study attributes upper Great Lakes water loss to climate change, low precipitation, degradation of the St. Clair river bed, and post-glacial rebounding of the earth’s crust. “Speed bumps” in the St. Clair river (the sole major outflow for the upper Great Lakes) have been suggested, notably by the Sierra Club, but not approved. There’s nothing, therefore, to stop the water flowing downhill.

Increasing the outflow from Lake Superior into Lake Huron-Michigan (they’re technically one body of water, including Georgian Bay and the North Channel) via the St. Mary’s River locks at Sault. Ste. Marie is the only option for raising water levels on Lake Huron-Michigan (including Georgian Bay) that makes use of existing engineering controls. But that would have the obvious detriment of lowering Lake Superior’s water levels as well. And Lake Superior is at the top, as its name implies.

The outflow of Lake Superior is ocean-bound, via Michigan-Huron, Lake St. Clair, the St. Clair River, the Detroit River, Lake Erie, the Niagara River, Lake Ontario and ultimately the St. Lawrence River. Together these bodies of water comprise 21 per cent of the world’s surface freshwater.  So you can consider the whole Great Lakes watershed a single basin, constantly trickling out, downstream to the ocean.

In an ideal world, precipitation keeps the water levels roughly constant. In an ideal world, the problems of the people living in small communities on the Georgian Bay shore would be minor and temporary, rather than indicators for the future of the region. In an ideal world, we could expect to see water levels rise again on Georgian Bay, as the IUGLS study spokesperson has suggested they will.

We are not living in an ideal world. We’re living in a world in which a single, sensitive reservoir of the world’s most important resource is visibly drying up. As one commenter noted, and as I have written elsewhere, the terrifying examples of Lake Chad and the Aral Sea should be top of mind for everyone.

Did you know 200 million tons of cargo is shipped via the Great Lakes annually, via the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway, a system of locks that allows ocean-going vessels to penetrate nearly to the centre of this continent?

Speaking of cargo: at this moment, a hundred towboats are at anchor along the Mississippi River, near Greenville, Mississippi. Despite constant dredging from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through this hot summer, the water in that mighty river is too low right now for the towboats to tug their cargo downriver.

Incidentally, the reversal of the Chicago River (a wonder of the world, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers) into the Des Plaines River means there is an outflow from Lake Michigan, into the Mississippi River system—a vast watershed in its own right, facing its own plight.

On not-so-faraway Georgian Bay, where locals and cottagers are mowing their beaches and extending their docks again, a lot of people will tell you that’s where the water went.

That’s not what the study says. But where the water went is not the key question anyway.

The key question is, what are we doing to save the water we have left?


The public consultation period for the International Upper Great Lakes Study runs until August 31, 2012. Share your comments.