As weather extremes become the norm, taxpayers must foot the bill for climate chaos: Don Pittis

In 2013, the economies of the Great Lakes faced record low water levels. Now, Lake Ontario faces a record high. Either way, taxpayers must foot the bill for climate volatility.

Great Lakes and other flooding costs mount as engineers struggle to cope with new climate patterns

Due to high water levels along the Ottawa River this spring, water was held back in Lake Ontario, causing shoreline damage. This came even though the Great Lakes had been facing record-low levels as recently as 2013. (Stu Mills/CBC)

The final tally of Great Lakes flood damage is still being calculated. But as U.S. President Donald Trump hints he will pull out of the Paris climate agreement, experts are warning that taxpayers must be prepared to eventually spend big in order to cope with a changing climate in the Great Lakes Basin.

As a major transportation corridor, reaching deep into the Canadian Prairies through rail links, managing the vast and complex water system remains a national — and international — priority.

"The irony is that most of these economic studies we've been doing of late have been because of the very low water levels and what that would do for transportation, recreation property, fishing and so on," says Gail Krantzberg, an engineering professor at McMaster University who has been studying the Lakes for 30 years.

From drought to flood

As Krantzberg has observed, the engineers charged with managing the sprawling Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway system now face what could be much more expensive problems: unpredictability and extremes of volatility.

As a dynamic living system, the rise and fall of water levels recharge wetlands and scour shorelines. In some years, one species benefits, creating a new food source that supplies future generations of another species downstream.  

"Fluctuations are what we want," says Krantzberg. "Extremes are where we get impacts."

Signs suggest those fluctuations are getting more extreme — and extremes are expensive. 
Ice cover on the upper Great Lakes in 2015 decreased evaporation, helping lake levels recover after 2013's lows. But it also increased flows into Lakes Erie and Ontario, contributing to this year's record levels. (Kenneth Armstrong/Reuters)

Trying to balance the many conflicting demands of an ecosystem and economic resource shared between Canada and the United States is the unenviable task of the International Joint Commission, which monitors shared waters between the two countries.

"Certainly on the upper Great Lakes, the levels were low for a little over a decade," says David Fay, a Canadian engineer who advises the IJC.

He says levels on Lake Huron hit an all-time low in 2013, forcing ships on the St. Lawrence Seaway to reduce loads and cutting the amount of water available for generating electricity. Ferry services were interrupted, marinas were left high and dry, and recreational property users faced a long, mucky hike out for a splash in the lake.

The low water levels in the upper Lakes were blamed on climate effects: low precipitation and warm temperatures that led to poor ice cover and higher rates of evaporation.

Climate effects

But suddenly everything changed — and now a different group of business owners and residents are complaining, as high water erodes banks and threatens property values.

"Water levels on the upper Great Lakes, Lake Superior, Michigan and Huron, as well as Erie, are all well above average now and Lake Ontario is now at its record high," says Fay.

High water levels have allowed generating stations in the Niagara region and Cornwall, Ont., make as much power as they want, but cool weather in the area means air conditioning demand and export prices have been low. (Reuters)

Fine-tuning such a huge, dynamic natural system covering hundreds of thousands of square kilometres is not easy.

One way to think of the Great Lakes is as a series of bathtubs. If the water pouring in through the tap is larger than the amount pouring out, the level of the tub rises. 

But the enormous extent of the Great Bathtubs requires some changes in thinking.

Raising the level of the dam between Lakes Superior and Huron might sound like a good idea when levels are high on the lower lakes, Fay says, but such a change would take years to work its way down to Lake Ontario.

By bathtub standards, the lakes are wide and shallow, so evaporation makes a real difference.

And rainfall — which has been exceptionally high this year — is not just the shower emptying into the tub, but all the precipitation over the entire watershed, including the snow that accumulates and pours into the lakes during the spring melt.

Pull the plug 

While property owners and municipalities would like to simply open the plug a little wider and let the water drain, that strategy has been complicated by other events, Fay says, including erratic freezing in the St. Lawrence River this past winter.

Letting out too much water before the river is properly frozen leads to the creation of ice dams, as unstable ice is swept into the river's narrow points.

When spring finally came, outflows from Lake Ontario had to be held back to compensate for flood-level spring runoff from the Ottawa River system.
Soldiers lay down sandbags to reinforce the highway in Saint-Andre-d'Argenteuil, Que., west of Montreal, during the recent flooding in that province. (Canadian Press)

Then came two months of rain.

"Right now, the flow in the [St. Lawrence] river is at its maximum for safe navigation," says Fay.

Yet if Lake Ontario rises further, that flow may have to increase, leading to more damage downstream and a costly interruption in shipping traffic.

The accumulated damage of this year's flooding has been estimated at between hundreds of millions and billions of dollars, but according to water engineer Tirupati Bolisetti, at the University of Windsor, the biggest expense will be rebuilding public infrastructure to cope with increasingly volatile conditions caused by climate change.

100-year events every 25 years

Bolisetti's own research shows that while the number of rainy days is declining, "any given rainfall is significantly higher than we used to have in the past."

"When you have to design the stormwater or flood-control structures, what used to be 25-year storm events have become five-year storm events now," he says. "What used to be 100-year storm events have become 25-year storm events."

So what kind of spending will be required in the Great Lakes Basin?

"If I had to project the costs for the reconstruction and upgrading of the infrastructure for climate change preparedness, it will be easily a few hundreds of billions," says Bolisetti.

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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.