How upper Great Lakes impact Ontario as Lake Michigan water levels are 2.5 feet above average

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This photo shows a view of a dam on Wixom Lake in Edenville, Mich., Tuesday, May 19, 2020. People living along two mid-Michigan lakes and parts of a river have been evacuated following several days of heavy rain that produced flooding and put pressure on dams in the area. (Kaytie Boomer/The Bay City Times via AP)

ROCHESTER, NY (WROC) – While Lake Ontario holds steady at just a few inches above normal, the upper Great Lakes continue to be at extremely high levels.

As of October 20, Lake Michigan is two and a half feet above average. Lake Superior is also well above average and just six inches away from record.

Below is a conversation between meteorologist James Gilbert and the President of the Great Lakes Coalition, Ron Wilson. This occurred in late September 2020. Wilson’s focus is on Lake Michigan. These are the expressed opinions of Ron Wilson.

HOW DID YOU GET INTO WORKING WITH THE GREAT LAKES?

“I’ve worked on lake levels as a lobbyist. I’m a retired lobbyist for all the counties in the state. Back in ‘86 when the water was the highest, all the homeowners that were up against the bluffs were impacted, because when the water was down, there was an opportunity for realtors and/or homebuilders to build in front of the dunes or in front of the bluffs, especially in high risk areas. So we worked to get legislation adopted that required 100 ft setbacks from the bluffs in high risk erosion areas. 

We initially fought for 50 feet back ‘period’ for any new construction, but we couldn’t get that so we went with the 100 foot back and now counties have the ability to have setbacks on other properties, but it’s mish mashed around the land. 

Right now we’ve been working to get information out to people about the dangers of high water and how much damage wave action could take place so that if their cottage is close to the bluff, they should take action and proper action through the proper agencies to make sure that they install some type of protection against the wave action.” 

WHAT LAKES DO YOU FOCUS ON? 

“Our coalition is broad-based. Mainly our membership is along the Lake Michigan coastline. We have people from Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan for the most part. We maybe have one or two from Wisconsin. Then we have ten to twenty people from Lake Huron and then five people from Lake Erie, but we’re trying to coalize and build better with the high water back up again people are now clamoring. We have organizations from Lake Ontario through Lake Superior all wanting to join forces and work together on these things instead of picking one lake versus another lake because the impact is overall.”

I’M CURIOUS AS TO WHAT YOUR PERSPECTIVE IS ON LAKE ONTARIO. THERE’S BEEN SOME CONTROVERSY OVER PLAN 2014 THAT WENT INTO EFFECT IN 2017. FOR YOU NOT BEING ON LAKE ONTARIO FROM THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN, WHAT WAS YOUR PERSPECTIVE? 

“We wanted to make sure that all lakes are treated equally and all property owners are treated equally so that when this past winter they were able to draw down Lake Ontario, it was good from them this year but will they be able to do it next year. What will they do when all the high water from Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are then flowed through the system over time?  

We’re 33” above average height. That has got to drain sometime, and Lake Erie and Lake Ontario are drainage points. We have some outlets through Chicago and other cities but that’s a drop in the water, so to speak. It’s a teaspoon trying to empty Lake Michigan.  

We want to have a system wide consistently based regulation of the height of the water as best we can. Lake Superior is only six inches above its average height. There’s agreement in our 2012 agreement, same as in Plan 2014 by the IJC, is that we’re supposed to be equalized with Lake Superior, but we’re not being equalized. We want to have equal treatment, equal pain so to speak, or near pain, with everybody.  

What we’re pushing for is that Lake Superior needs to not dump as much water into Lake Michigan or Lake Huron with then gets into Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. If they were to treat the three lakes equally, then Lake Superior if they went up and stopped water flow forward 12 inches and held it back over time, then we would be only 24 inches.

Lake Superior would be 21 inches over its average depth. The IJC is not doing that at this time. As a result, that will cause more water to flow into Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Only by the grace of God and Montreal having acquiesced this past winter is that Lake Ontario is seeing a dramatic decrease in water in the point. Only by the grace of God, only the grace of the IJC is allowing that to happen. Without the IJC, with the water board, Lake Ontario would be as high as we are. They would not be enjoying an 8” drop in water depth. They would have more water.”

CAN THEY CHANGE THE FLOW FROM SUPERIOR TO MICHIGAN? 

“Yes, they can. There are outlets and they have dams that Ontario Hydro is encouraging and impressing upon folks to allow more water to go through their hydroelectric plants than what is needed. They don’t need the hydroelectric electricity for service in their area. They’re actually selling that to other states or other locals at the low cost. They’re not doing it at prime cost, which is really sad. If Ontario needed the hydroelectric power, I would say Okay fine. But actually, Ontario hydro is selling that. It’s access capacity for them.”

PLAN 2014 AIMS TO HELP REBUILD NATURAL BARRIERS AROUND LAKE ONTARIO TO MITIGATE FUTURE FLOODING. ARE THERE ANY PLANS LIKE THAT AROUND LAKE MICHIGAN? 

“There are some things, but sadly our rivers and wetlands areas along the lakes have way too much water at this point and time… You have too much water in the wetlands by Lake Michigan or Lake Huron, and it causes more for the ecosystem. The water is so high and our rivers are so high so they’re not draining. We’re having more damage to the inland sites along the main rivers because the water is so high, And with the water high, the rivers aren’t emptying as fast as they should be or they could be. We would like to change the flow from lake Ogoki and the other lake in Ontario, but Ontario Hydro switched the river flow from those two lakes. In 1944 they switched it so they could create more hydro… 

Now we’re pushing to have that reversed, and they’re saying ohh no you can’t do that because you’ll be harming the ecosystem. Well that’s calling the kettle black! It’s so outrageous that they would say that. You changed it once, we just want to reverse it back to natural. Ontario Hydro in Canada is opposed to that, and they’re not allowing the IJC, because the IJC is working not on an actual vote but on consensus. Since we can’t reach consensus, they’re not going to turn it back.” 

HOW HAVE THE CONVERSATIONS BEEN WITH YOU AND THE IJC? 

“We’ve had fairly decent conversations with the IJC, but not with all members. We have one member that, a couple years ago was somebody who had been a state senator and someone I knew personally. When she was replaced by Rob Sissen, she introduced me to Rob, and rob and I have conversations, but sometimes he’s saying the corporate line instead of acknowledging so many issues. “ 

ANY OTHER GOALS OR FINAL THOUGHTS OF WHAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO SEE HAPPEN? 

“I would like to see the permitting process throughout the states along the Great Lakes to be pretty much equal, so that if somebody can build something on Lake Michigan, but in Illinois area, then the same situation could be applied for Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior. There are practices and procedures that are different and part of it is by maintaining a consistent basis, then we have consistent rules that we can then promote and follow throughout the area. We want them to pay attention to the impact it has on cities. Land owners are complaining, but it’s actually the cities and states that are really hit the hardest by the high-water marks. Our roads we estimate the state of MIchigan had their state parks and roads and road construction and bridges along the lakes need to be fixed. Because of the high-water marks. It’s going to cost $800 million.  

Many of our state parks do not have access to Lake Michigan or Lake Huron anymore because the high water has washed out their bridges, or walkways or staircases to Lake Michigan or Lake Huron. We have flooding on our roads consistently because of the high-water mark along the lake, causing backups and delays in transportation. … We’re noticing that there’s more shipping going on because they can’t carry as much weight because the rivers are so high that displacement would cause downtowns major havoc. The roads and bridges for just the cities along will cost 70 to 80 million dollars. Detroit water system has stormwater runoff being impacted by how high the St. Claire river and Lake St Claire is.”

Here is the entire phone interview.

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