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CGLI Contributes to 2014 Science-Policy Confluence Conference


Kathryn Buckner and panel discuss Great Lakes water levels (Photo source:

On March 26 and 27, 2014, CGLI President Kathryn A. Buckner participated in an invitation-only conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan that was convened by the Environmental Law and Policy Center to discuss various sector perspectives on the impact of water levels fluctuations in the Great Lakes.

Susan Hedman, USEPA Region V Administrator and Director of the Great Lakes National Program Office, provided the keynote address. Ms. Hedman focused on the impact of water levels on USEPA’s current Great Lakes priorities (water quality impacts from CSO/SSO discharges, excessive nutrient loading, and legacy contamination in areas of concern). She indicated that, notwithstanding current regional concerns about water level fluctuations and their potential impact on nearshore and coastal property owners, water level variations do not significantly impact USEPA’s Great Lakes priority issue areas.

Much of the discussion at the conference was designed to identify specific impacts of water level fluctuations. Ms. Buckner asked CGLI members before the conference for perspectives on the water levels issue and learned that the issue is incorporated into business planning cycles but generally is not considered an issue of significant concern. One CGLI member company reported that has increased the frequency of annual maintenance activities at intake structures due to increased sedimentation. Another company mentioned that water level fluctuations have increased the importance of flexible designs for new facilities and equipment in coastal areas. A few CGLI member companies noted concerns related the cost and efficiency of waterborne transportation, since lake carriers often must “light load” when water levels are low to reduce the draft of the vessels. However, none of these issues warranted significant concern as of yet because the ebb and flow of Great Lakes water levels has always been incorporated into short- and long-range planning activities and industry has learned to adjust.

A predominant theme at the conference centered on responses to water level fluctuations, i.e. whether humans should learn to adapt or (if possible) should attempt to regulate fluctuations through engineered structures. Most conference participants advocated adaptation rather than engineered controls, primarily because the size, complexity, and dynamic nature of the Great Lakes system makes “whole system” regulation and control difficult if not impossible. Adaptation practices could include, for example, reduced construction in areas prone to extreme high and low water levels and/or flexible location and design of infrastructure (such as docks, harbors, and marinas; intakes and discharge pipes; and seawalls and breakwaters). Proposed mechanisms for encouraging or mandating adaptation behaviors include modified zoning regulations, changes in insurance instruments and policies, commercial lending restrictions in flood-prone areas, and modified infrastructure design standards.

At least two organizations represented at the conference advocated engineered structures to control Great Lakes water level fluctuations. Restore Our Waters International advocated structures in the St. Clair River to compensate for water level decreases caused by navigational dredging and sand/gravel mining that occurred in the 1950s. Georgian Bay Forever advocated “whole system” regulation to prevent extreme highs and extreme lows that can damage coastal communities and property. Another conference participant, a retired member of the US Corps of Engineers, reported that he helped to design engineered structures in the 1960s that would provide “whole system” regulation of lake water levels. The structures were deemed feasible but were never constructed because water levels rebounded in the early 1970s. He emphasized that the 1960s structures were designed only to address the hydrologic aspects of the system and did not incorporate environmental or ecological concerns. He strongly advocated a more holistic approach to the water levels issue.

Water level fluctuations in the Great Lakes have been studied for decades by the International Joint Commission, Environment Canada, and the US Corp of Engineers. At the conclusion of the conference, Don Scavia (Graham Sustainability Institute and Great Lakes Integrated Science Assessments Center) announced that an integrated assessment would be initiated “within a month” to study various adaptation mechanisms and to develop recommendations for creating more resilient coastal communities.