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Great Lakes Article:

Group extends remarks period for lake study
State's only meeting in Superior, while closest will be in Evanston
Journal Sentinel
Dan Egan
May 12, 2009

Responding to public pressure, authors of a controversial study exploring the causes of mysteriously low water on Lakes Michigan and Huron will postpone their July 1 deadline for public comments.

On May 1, a draft study was released that blames nature - and not dredging - for erosion in the St. Clair River that has permanently lowered the lakes.

On Tuesday, study spokesman John Nevin said the study board will extend the comment period so the public has ample chance to review and comment on the scientific reports, which should be released later this spring or early summer after a peer-review process.

The public hearings begin next week, but Wisconsin residents who live along Lake Michigan likely will have to travel out of state to participate.

Wisconsin has 407 miles of Lake Michigan coastline, and that coast is home to four of the state's five largest cities. Still, the only meeting scheduled in Wisconsin will be in Superior, which sits on the shore of Lake Superior.

"That's a crying shame that Wisconsin doesn't have any real input unless we want to go across the lake or up to Superior," said Jerry Viste of the Door County Environmental Council.

Only three hearings will be held in communities on Lake Michigan, the closest to Milwaukee being Evanston, Ill. That's the same number of hearings that will be held on or near Lake Superior - even though Superior isn't the focus of this study at all. This study focuses on water levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron, which are one body of water connected at the Straits of Mackinac. The connection to Superior is that this study is the first in a two-phase study taking a larger look at the "upper lakes."

There are five meetings scheduled for communities on Lake Huron.

Nevin said cost was a big factor in limiting how many hearings can be held, and that the hearings will be taped and available over the Web, and that people can submit comments via e-mail.

There is significant interest in the issue in Wisconsin, as evidenced by the 150 people who turned out to learn more about the issue at a meeting in Sturgeon Bay last summer.

Nevin said late Tuesday afternoon that more meetings could be added "if there are individuals or organizations unable to comment via other means."

"In particular, given the high level of interest expressed last year, a meeting (in) Door County might make a lot of sense," he said.

While water in Lake Michigan this spring is rebounding toward more normal levels, Viste said the unusually low water of the last decade has people concerned.

"People who normally wouldn't give a damn are now wondering what's happening," he said.

Nevin, who works for the International Joint Commission, which is funding the $3.6 million study, said the details of expanding the public comment period are still being worked out.

"The important message is that the study board is committed to making sure the public has a reasonable period of time to review all the pending (scientific) reports," he said.

Members of the study board's citizen advisory panel have complained that the study board released its findings - and its decision to do nothing about the water loss - without providing the scientific reports used to reach their conclusion. They called the 215-page study a "trust-me" document, and the idea of holding a public comment period without making the science available a "farce."

The new study concludes that about 4 inches of water have been lost from Michigan and Huron in recent decades because of an expanding St. Clair River.

It blames an ice jam in the 1980s for scouring away the river bottom. It says the river channel has since stabilized, and that the water loss is therefore not ongoing. It also says changing weather patterns and the Earth's crust rebounding from the last ice age are affecting water levels.

A previous privately financed study blamed Army Corps of Engineers dredging in the 1960s for unleashing lake-lowering erosion in the river, which is the main outflow for Michigan and Huron. Members of the Canadian property owners group that funded the initial study still maintain the water loss is more significant than the new study states, and that it is likely ongoing.

At this point few others have questioned the legitimacy of the Joint Commission-funded study's conclusions, but lots of people do have a problem that the study was released without the scientific reports that substantiate it.

Nevin said last week that the scientific reports could not be released because they had yet to be peer reviewed.

He said the study was released before the promised peer reviews because the study board was under political pressure to get the work out fast.


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