2017 high lake levels: a cause for concern, or celebration?

Environment, News
Wingfield Basin (Cabot Head) Bruce Co. July 2013 – Peter Thoem, mybirdoftheday.ca

SOUTHWESTERN ONTARIO – There is something to be said about the rising water levels surrounding the Great Lakes.

It was not long ago when I reported the first indication of a lake level rebound after what appeared to be a long, 17-year period of dry depression for the Great Lakes (Gentile, 2015). The article, in part, reads:

It has been 17 long years for the Great Lakes, as they endured, what seemed to become a long and dry depression… The past two winters have been ones to remember. The average daily high was -20°C, and the average snowfall accumulation in some areas was 15 to 20 centimetres a shot. The ice and snow melt from these two winters have brought the lakes a lot of fresh, new run-off water. This new supply of water entering the Great Lakes and the cooler surface water temperature, which limits the amount of evaporation that occurs, are the two factors that brought our lakes back to what they used to be—and are responsible for lifting the spirits of so many out on the lake this season.

It is quite Ironic, I must say. In only a matter of years, one can switch gears from worshiping the slightest increase in lake levels, while applauding any indication of a lake level rebound, to being caught up in dismay over it.

A stormy, and wet, April and May have seen water levels rise dramatically within all five of the Lakes. The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) recently reported that Lake Ontario’s water levels, in particular, are more than a metre above the long-term average for the lake—which is an astonishing 15 centimetres higher than the previous record, set back in May of 1973.

While the concerns, and overall aftermath of the rising water levels are concentrated well south of Grey-Bruce—due to, in part, the southern flow of the heavy rainfall in the Lake Ontario-Erie basin for Spring, 2017—the record-breaking spike in water levels is certainly affecting regions north of the GTHA as well.

But how so? Are the new statistics

To the owner of a million-dollar dwelling along the Oakville, Ontario shoreline, the water levels are stigmatized as troublesome. But; to the recreational enthusiasts who flock to the waters of the Great Lakes, the increase is seen as entirely beneficial. Now, what should we believe?

The true meaning and impact rising water levels carries cannot be measured by a dollar amount, or the ability to navigate through more water on a recreational watercraft. To view the affects of this natural occurring phenomenon, one must analyze all proportions connected to it.

Wetland Ecology

From an ecological standpoint, an increase in water levels is nothing new. In fact, the water levels of the Great Lakes fluctuate on a 13-year cycle, peaking every June of the 13th year. Natural ecosystems adorn the basins, waterways and inlets of the Great Lakes. The Bruce Peninsula is a rather diverse landmass, where innumerable landforms (a series of inland lakes, rivers and wetland systems which drain out into the waters of Lake Huron – see here), aquatic and terrestrial species intersect. Such ecosystems flourish in the presence of constant water flow, and are continuously threatened by the discontents of Global Warming. The rising lake levels, in this regard, are dubbed beneficial as natural ecosystems surrounding the Great Lakes can now carry and foster a greater capacity of life; including fish, reptiles, amphibians and numerous flora and fauna related species.

Sand and Silt Drift & Shoreline Erosion

Geologically, the ways of which waters affect the land are critical. The forces of water not only retain the ability to deposit and manicure shorelines, but can also serve severe damage in the form of lakeside erosion. Shorelines, such as coastal bluffs, sandy beaches, dunes etc., are easily altered by the forces of wind and water erosion along the Lake Huron Shoreline. While sand beaches—such as the popular Sauble Beach, Ontario—are among the top summer getaway spots for tourists, they serve a double purpose: One where human presence and natural ecology can coexist if the balance is right. An increase in water volume, flowing rigorously through all lakes, heightens the vulnerability of this natural balance. One powerful storm has the potential to wreak havoc on highly valued shorelines, as seen currently along many beaches east of Toronto. As sandbar deposits sink under the depth of swelling water levels and strong Westerly winds begin to prevail, shorelines stand no chance against the corrosive power of waves. The extremely finite sand and silt succumbs to the water’s outflow current re-accumulating in open channels and waterways of the lakes—making the marine navigation through water especially dangerous. For the landscapes that rely heavily on tourism—mostly beaches—sandy space is deducted, and in Sauble’s case, is replaced by a sea of vehicles and visitor density—decreasing the appeal of tourism and, in some costs, devastating tourism itself. Needless to say, if you pull up a chair at any local beach this summer, there is more at risk then just a lack of lounge space.

Threat to Water Quality: Rain and Wave Action

As for human health, the continuing rise of the Great Lakes combined with aging, metropolitan sized city infrastructure, on its shores, is quite alarming. The health and safety of 24 million US citizens and 9.8 million people in Canada who directly consume water from the lakes daily is at risk. Through this spring, many cities and urbanized centres boardering the Great Lakes have dealt with irregular precipitation amounts, which, in turn, escalated the raw bacterial and mineral count returning to the water through run-off and city storm water. This is already having a devastating impact in Lake Erie, where toxic algae blooms are already growing (see here)! Add this with frankly inappropriate (falling apart) urban infrastructure below ground, and one can expect the lake bacterial count, within densely populated regions, to soar; especially in places of which the lake flood is right next to (see this).

Moderating Coastal Temperatures

In moderating coastal temperature, the refreshing, new supply of water could mean a more moderate summer temperature in areas close to an open water body (refer to this). For most with respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, this news is quite positive.

Imbalance in Ecological Systems

An imbalance in local ecological systems is a direct result of unprecedented, high lake levels. Mosquitoes, unpleasant critters and parasites are predicted to be in abundance this summer season (see here). Stagnant waterlogged ponds, places in which mosquitoes and other insects thrive, are not predicted to recede until mid-July, when lake levels begin to fall again, soils drain and moisture evaporates from the pores in the earth. Fallen trees, debris and wood from water damage are also prime territory for parasite activity. Meanwhile, larger terrestrial species such as mice and raccoons will be on a more constant than usual pursuit. Prime habitats for such species, along forest floors, have fallen victim to flooding and are, therefore, uninhabitable (see this video). These species will simply follow the populations of insects and mosquitoes as a means of survival.

It is evident the rise and fall of the Great Lake’s is a natural cycle that comes with its own set of dilemma’s and rejoices—a cycle of which can be easily tampered with, and destroyed, if not placed under proper watch. Each quality displayed by the inland sea’s of North America—the Great Lakes—is a gift. But perhaps, the most important outcome is indeed the asset of fresh water; a resource all would give their right arm for.

Joseph Gentile – Editor and freelancer, TheLumberjack.ca