Thunder Bay

Low water levels worry Lake Superior cottager

There could soon be a new plan to regulate water flow in Lake Superior thanks to a five-year study from the international agency that monitors the Great Lakes.

Climate change has created greater fluctuations on Canada's great lake, experts say

There could soon be a new plan to regulate water flow in Lake Superior thanks to a five-year study from the international agency that monitors the Great Lakes.

The plan is welcome news for Shirley Dolph, who has owned a cottage on Lake Superior since the 1970s.

She said, in recent years, she's seen big changes in the water levels — so much so that she had to sell her boat.

Lake Superior cottager Shirley Dolph says water levels have fluctuated so much that she could no longer use her boat. (Jen Keiller/CBC)

"We don't go boating at [all]," she said. "I couldn't even get in my canoe for a long time … the water level drops right down in the fall and then we don't get any water again till about May."

On Monday night, Dolph addressed her concerns at a meeting hosted by the International Joint Commission. The commission, with members from Canada and the United States cooperatively manages boundary waters. 

It plans to provide smaller and more predictable water level changes in the Great Lakes. One method would be to adjust the flow of water through hydropower plants according to peak hours of electricity demands.

Dereth Glance, a spokesperson with the commission, said the plan would hopefully create more consistency.

Dereth Glance, a spokesperson with the International Joint Commission, said small changes to Lake Superior water flow will hopefully create more consistency. Jen Keiller/CBC

"There's a natural fluctuation in the environment we want to mimic that as much as possible," she said.

Glance noted climate change is causing the current fluctuations in water levels and it’s hard to predict how water levels will change over time.

"You have to remember it's very, very small what humans can do for Lake Superior," Glance said. "We don't have a very clear crystal ball of whether we're going to get more rain, less rain, and what the impact's going to be on the lake."

The changes are also hoped to encourage more Lake Sturgeon to spawn, she added.

The commission will hold public meetings in cities around the Great Lakes until July 17. It will also accept feedback on the plan — formally known as Lake Superior Regulation: Addressing Uncertainty in Upper Great Lakes Water Levels — until Aug. 31.

Excerpt from the study

The waters of the upper Great Lakes meet many diverse needs of the more than 25 million people who live in the basin: from drinking water to electrical power generation, from industrial manufacturing to food crop irrigation, from recreational boating to commercial shipping. They are important to the economic and cultural lives of Native American communities and First Nations.

The lakes and connecting rivers also maintain wetlands and fisheries. In the entire upper Great Lakes basin, water levels are affected by regulation at only one location upstream from Niagara Falls: at the outlet of Lake Superior on the St. Marys River.

The IJC issued Orders of Approval in 1914 for hydropower development on the St. Marys River and the first Lake Superior regulation plan was implemented in 1921. Since 1921, seven different regulation plans have been used to determine Lake Superior outflows. The current plan, 1977A, has been in force since 1990.