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March 30, 2012     Post 30
Lake Levels Up and Down

Lake Water Levels – Up and Down.

This is the first of a series of three articles based on the last chapter of my soon to be published book “Dangerous Waters”. The chapter is on the St. Lawrence Seaway- Boon or Bungle?

The Lake is high this year, about 9 inches above average. Lots of home owners are griping about erosion. The photo is of a nearby stretch of shore.

Look closely and you'll see chunks of cottage on the beach. This shoreline recedes about two feet a year. The cottage was built about 120 feet from the edge in the 1930s. On May 31 the IJC will host a meeting in Oswego on the campus about revised water level policies that are proposed for our lake.

I am plugging along on a new book project and lake level politics enter into “Dangerous Waters” in my chapter on the history of the St. Lawrence Seaway System. Part of the Seaway Project was construction of a joint hydro dam and water flow control dam near Cornwall-Massena. This has since produced a large and steady source of hydro power. Thanks to the flow control dam the engineers can also control Lake Ontario levels more or less .

A new report out this week from the IJC on the water levels of the Great Lakes includes a proposal to regulate all five lakes by building a billion dollars worth of flow control structures between them. Even the engineers said was a bad idea. Since engineers exist in order to build things, you know this is something we shouldn't be doing or thinking of doing. The U.S. Canadian study on lake levels cost the tax payers 14 million dollars and about 200 engineers and scientists took part. There are times when as the study chairman said, we really need to learn to live with it. This is one of them.

The study chairman was quoted in Syracuse paper this past week that there are always expectations that artificial structures can protect you against everything. But the mere fact that you can potentially regulate something also means you are going to be held accountable for it. Controversy ensues. Sometimes to the point of shoving matches, fist fights and even outright war. That's why the IJC was established by treaty in the first place so the U.S. and Canada could use a method other than war to argue over Great Lakes management issues.

The International Joint Commission originated to settle disputes over diversions like the Chicago Sanitary Canal (that at one time lowered Lake Michigan's level six inches after it was enlarged) and the Niagara River allotments to power dams on either side of the U S Canadian boundary line. The diplomats started trying to get the process started around 1896 and 16 years later the IJC was in business and started with a fair amount of success to implement cooperative water level regulations. I guess that's pretty fast for a diplomatic initiative. They could get things done a century ago before e mail and bloggers.

Today in the long run the dam operators on the St. Lawrence can regulate Lake Ontario's level quite precisely and have done so for over fifty years. But in the short term wind waves seiches and other weather related forces can shift lake levels several feet. These effects may only last a few hours, but a whole lot of erosion can take place in a day's time. Trust me. I've seen it happen. Hopefully I'll get a photo posted that shows lake waves slamming into the foot of the clay bluff and washing right up on it over a 25 foot wide beach.

photo of active erosion

As interest in geo engineering to counter climate change heats up (pun intended, and software engineer Bill Gates is among the funding sources) some of us with an ecological background see trouble ahead. The Great Lakes level study co- chair said in this weeks news release anything we do to help somebody will hurt somebody else. People need to learn to live with it. Amen. Learning to live with it is called adaptation. Those who adapt evolve and survive. Those who insist on doing it their way don't.

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