Great Lakes water in jeopardy

IJC urges 'rigorous' efforts to maintain water levels

By Kenneth Pole
Editor, Environment Policy & Law
Environment Policy & Law is published and edited by Kenneth Pole (613-282-7270 or and Randy Ray (613-425-3873 or both of Ottawa, Canada.

An inability to accurately track Canadian withdrawals of irreplaceable water from the Great Lakes basin has prompted the International Joint Commission (IJC) to call on governments with a direct stake in the watershed to make better monitoring a high priority and “rigorously” minimize loss.

“For the U.S. as a whole, total withdrawals declined by 13% from 2005 to 2010,” the IJC says in reviewing developments since its Protection of the Waters of the Great Lakes report in February 2000. That report recommended, among other things, against removal of water unless the proponents could demonstrate that it would not endanger the ecosystem’s integrity. That report followed up on a 1985 study, commissioned by the Canadian and US governments, that called for improved information on consumption and “a process of notice and consultation before additional new or changed diversions are approved.”

The Great Lakes Charter, signed by the two federal governments, requires provinces and states to not approve or permit major new or increased diversion or consumption without notifying all the other affected jurisdictions. A key element of the Charter was that each jurisdiction had to be able to provide accurate and comparable information on withdrawals.

While US trends evidently have been measurable, the IJC says in the new report that it has not been possible to detect trends accurately in Canada “because of data deficiencies and changing methodologies for data collection.” While Environment Canada reports that per capita water use in the public water supply sector in 2009 had decreased by 14% since 2006, the federal department has acknowledged the decrease in the basin’s reserves could have been due to climatic factors.

“A complete understanding of consumptive use is critical to careful water

management throughout the basin, including evaluations of the impact of new diversions,” the IJC found. “Consumptive use . . . is small relative to renewable supply, and given recent trends is unlikely to increase substantially in the next few decades, but increases in temperature and decreases in precipitation during summers could drive increases in water use.”

However, developments since the 2000 had been mostly “a good news story” from a government policy perspective, as gaps identified since 2000 “have been largely filled” and “no new inter-basin or intra- basin diversions which would have significant negative impacts on the ecological integrity of the Great Lakes have been approved (and) the growth in consumptive use appears to have been at least temporarily arrested.” But “ongoing management vigilance and additional

scientific advances will be required to maintain that positive momentum.”

The most significant accomplishment since 2000 was the signing of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Compact in 2008 between the eight Great Lakes states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) and a parallel agreement with Ontario and Quebec to ban most diversions and exports.

“The citizens of the Great Lakes region have been well served by their governments, who have taken a reasoned and effective approach to stopping water transfers,” said the IJC’s Canadian Commissioner, Benoît Bouchard, a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister in the Brian Mulroney administration. “This is really a model for watersheds all over the world, emphasizing water conservation and stewardship.”

Bouchard said the fledgling Liberal government should support provincial water-treatment infrastructure upgrades and assess the basin’s aquifers. “We don’t really know the status of both,” he said. “The Great Lakes are one of the biggest assets we have as Canadians and Americans . . . so we’d really appreciate if both governments investigate the status of those issues and what needs to be done.”

In his mandate letter to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged cooperation with other cabinet ministers, as well as with provincial and municipal governments “to protect Canada’s fresh water using education, geo-mapping, watershed protection and investments in the best waste -water treatment technologies.”

Bouchard’s U.S. counterpart, Dereth Glance, former executive program director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a lobby group founded in 1985 to strengthen environmental policy, noted that there is effectively no water surplus in the basin

because only about 1% is renewed annually by rain and snowmelt. Hence the IJC’s recommendation of “further strengthening of key measures, including water conservation, accuracy of water use data, and using adaptive management to promote resilience under future climate scenarios.”

Average air and surface water temperatures are rising in the basin, precipitation and evaporation are increasing, and average annual ice cover is decreasing. Evaporative increases in the Lake Michigan-Huron basin over the last 60 years have been mostly balanced by increased precipitation. But increased precipitation in the Lake Superior basin in that period has not offset increased evaporation, explaining a trend of declining water supplies in Lake Superior.

“While the trends may be weak with respect to the inter- annual climate variability and magnitude of uncertainty in the hydrologic components of the lake water balance,” the IJC says, “there has likely been a modest trend of declines in total Great Lakes supplies in recent decades, although . . . 2013 and 2014 high runoff and precipitation levels have resulted in significant rebounds in Lakes Superior and Michigan Huron. . . .

“Considering the large uncertainties surrounding climate change and other human impacts on the hydrologic cycle, federal, provincial and state governments should, in addition to continuing to take an adaptive management approach in decision-making, incorporate climate resilience into policies and management practices regarding decision-making for diversions, consumptive use, and lake level management.

“Provincial and state governments should survey how widespread the development and adoption of adaptation strategies are across the basin. Advancements in the state of science on climate change impacts in the Great Lakes should be encouraged by federal, state and provincial governments through further funding and a synthesis of the state of the science.”