Every fall, I take my environmental studies class camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan. Some years the beach extends more than three meters to the water. This year, in many spots, there was no beach at all.
Biggest Impacts<p>My research looks at the ways that Canada and the U.S., along with the bilateral <a href="https://press.ucalgary.ca/books/9781773851075/" target="_blank">International Joint Commission</a>, have tried to understand and control water in the Great-Lakes St. Lawrence River Basin for well more than a century.</p><p>Both countries have made large diversions in and out of the Great Lakes, such as the <a href="https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-past-and-future-of-the-chicago-sanitary-and-ship_b_59934c9be4b0eef7ad2c01c0" target="_blank">Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal</a>, as well as numerous smaller diversions and canals.</p><p>In the 1950s, dams along the <a href="https://www.amazon.com/Negotiating-River-Creation-Lawrence-History/dp/0774826444" target="_blank">St. Lawrence</a> transformed this gigantic river into a hydropower pool and navigation channel and, controversially, <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07011784.2018.1475263" target="_blank">to help regulate water levels in Lake Ontario</a>. Control works in the St. Marys River partially regulate Lake Superior. Niagara Falls is <a href="https://slate.com/technology/2019/05/niagara-falls-june-1969-dewatering.html" target="_blank">treated like a tap</a> to generate both hydropower and beauty. Then there is the 100-plus years of perpetually <a href="https://greatlakesdredging.net/publications/1996-case-study-solec-paper-changing-land-use/" target="_blank">dredging channels and harbours</a> for navigation.</p><img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjAwOTk5MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNzQwOTM3OX0.fHxLdz0fSy5nCcSWafhUpT_FSoUdXq-fhzQOWSYGkZg/img.jpg?width=980" id="a438c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="22d3ef2bce99f5fe15738d4f818f06ad" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Lake Michigan's high water levels consumed beaches at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in 2019. Daniel Macfarlane / Author provided
Natural Supply<p>However, natural forces — rain, snow, ice cover, temperature, evaporation — are the biggest determinant of water levels in the Great Lakes.</p><p>As long as humans have kept records, <a href="https://www.lre.usace.army.mil/Missions/Great-Lakes-Information/Great-Lakes-Information.aspx#ICG_ETH_22302" target="_blank">Great Lakes water levels have oscillated</a>. Depending on which of the Great Lakes one considers, the maximum range of water level fluctuations has been about one to two meters in the past 150 years. For example, very high water occurred in the early 1950s, early 1970s, mid-1980s and mid-1990s.</p><p>Now, pushed by a changing climate, the swings in levels that used to take several decades are occurring in half a decade. Instead of a gradual rise and fall, the lakes are going from extreme to extreme.</p><img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjAwOTYxNS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwMjg4MjkyMH0.ltxtHegFQONvIaLD9xOAd6TIlpaj3kJ_UpX0P3L_L6I/img.jpg?width=980" id="3bda2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d73bba3419f1a5c413438750e72fb4cf" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
High water levels inundate a waterfront home on the St. Lawrence River in May 2017.
Moving Back<p>Water needs breathing space. We need to move out of the way, rather than try to move water out of our way.</p><p>Humans have removed, impaired or destroyed many of the lakes' natural buffers, which accommodate fluctuating water. We've eradicated shoreline wetlands and beaches and covered them with concrete.</p><p>If a property along the Great Lakes is getting wet now, it will almost certainly be wetter in the future. While there is some scientific uncertainty about exactly what climate change will do to water levels, the extreme highs and lows will get worse. Volatility is the new normal.</p><p>Like climate change, when it comes to addressing Great Lakes levels, the biggest hurdles aren't scientific — they are political, economic and social.</p><p><a href="https://www.tvo.org/video/great-lakes-great-problems" target="_blank">Any new infrastructure</a> along Great Lakes shorelines must be flexible, adaptable and resilient.</p><p>But we must also realize that the answer isn't more infrastructure. Infrastructure is too often the cause of our environmental issues.</p><p>We need to remove structures entirely and avoid building anything near the water's edge. This will have the added benefit of making more of the Great Lakes accessible to everyone. Since governments zoned vulnerable areas for construction, government funding should be provided.</p><p>We should use the opportunity to <a href="https://www.watershedcouncil.org/benefits-of-wetlands.html" target="_blank">restore natural shorelines and wetlands</a>. These provide many benefits for both water quality and water quantity. In terms of the latter, they can serve as water retention areas, while wetland plants provide erosion control.</p><p>This is all going to be very hard for many people to hear — there will be major resistance. But not moving is going to cost more in the long run. We think we can control water levels, but we need to think differently.</p><p><em>Reposting with permission from our media associate <a href="https://theconversation.com/great-lakes-flooding-the-warning-signs-that-homes-must-be-moved-122697" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Conversation</a>.</em></p>
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