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Great Lakes Article:

Shallower Lake Erie spells deep trouble
By Owen Heary
The Buffalo News
Published August 29, 2006

Lake Erie's water level could fall by as much as 32 inches by 2050, due to changes in global climate, according to the latest estimates by Environment Canada, driving sweeping changes through the region's environment and its economy.

Beaches that stretch hundreds of feet from the water's edge.
Great Lakes shipping grinding to a halt.

Hydroelectric power plants left high and dry.

New wetlands unlike those seen in centuries.

Lake Erie's water level could fall by as much as 32 inches by 2050, due to changes in global climate, according to the latest estimates by Environment Canada, driving sweeping changes through the region's environment and its economy.

All told, the lake could lose up to 15 percent of its surface area. And though the figure represents only a worst-case scenario, all of the latest scientific models predict the lake will drop some inches in the coming decades. The only question is how much.

"We should pay attention to what they're telling us," said Joe Atkinson, director of the Great Lakes Center at Buffalo State College. "That's not to say they're perfect, and there's always room for uncertainty, but . . . it's the best information we have at this point."

Ships carrying goods on the Great Lakes depend on a certain amount of water between them and the lake bottom to travel safely. If the water level falls just a single inch, a typical ship will have to lose anywhere from 50 to 270 tons of cargo in order to maintain that safe distance.

And if it drops a few feet?

"That would just be an economic disaster," said Glen Nekvasil, spokesman for the Lake Carriers Association. "Water levels are what make or break this industry," and a drop that large could render the business of shipping goods on the lake "inviable."

Shippers already are coping with falling water levels. An association survey reported that three out of every four ships in the past five years were working below capacity. Ships bearing coal bound for NRG Energy's Huntley Power Station in the Town of Tonawanda, for instance, reported dropping anywhere from 750 to 1,000 tons to safely navigate the Black Rock Channel.

Nekvasil said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - whose task is to maintain lake depths around harbors and shipping lanes - has been underfunded for decades. He estimated that it would take $200 million just to make up the present dredging shortfall, not to mention future considerations.

The budget for operations and maintenance has been slashed 34 percent over the last four years, admitted Bruce Sanders, spokesman for the corps' Buffalo District. Confronted with the possibility of an almost 3-foot drop in Lake Erie's water level, Sanders declined to speculate how much it would cost the corps to keep shippers afloat.

"This is almost a doomsday scenario," he said. "It would have a tremendous impact across the board."

A shrinking Lake Erie also could hold serious consequences for hydroelectric facilities on the Niagara River. The river currently flows at a little more than 200,000 cubic feet per second, about half of which is diverted to power generators on both sides of the border - leaving just enough for tourists to enjoy the cascading falls. Millions of homes currently enjoy electricity derived from the river.

But the latest climate projections suggest that the outflow of water could drop by as much as 26 percent over the same time period - threatening the steady flow of water that hydroelectric utilities have come to count on.

"Low lake levels can certainly affect the Niagara [Power] Project's output," said New York Power Authority spokesman Michael Saltzman.

Saltzman declined to estimate how significant the impact would be, but as both the United States and Canada look to shift toward alternative, cleaner sources of energy - an Ontario power company recently began work on a 7-mile tunnel to divert even more water from the falls - a short supply of hydroelectric power may be facing even greater demand in the near future.

Lake Erie's decline also could have repercussions for the lake's toxic algae blooms and resident fish populations, as well as regional snow packs and agricultural growing seasons.

But forecasts of the dropping water level don't only portend doom and gloom. Some scientists hope that the lake's slow retreat will reveal a renewed lakeshore, with wetlands similar to the ones the earliest European explorers must have seen back in the 17th century.

"The potential to re-establish a natural shoreline is there," said Jeff Tyson, a fisheries expert with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. "Now's a good time to think about what we could be doing . . . to capitalize on possible opportunities or address negative impacts."

The question of who owns those new lands has yet to be resolved. Common riparian law suggests that private ownership ends at the water's edge - but what happens if the water moves?

"There may be some head-scratching in the courts," said Barry Boyer, former dean of the University at Buffalo Law School, who specializes in environmental law. "Global warming can possibly make a few new jobs for lawyers."

While some observers have made an effort to discredit or downplay the findings, others increasingly are becoming frustrated by what they see as equivocation and inaction.

"A 3-foot drop would be catastrophic," said Reg Gilbert, senior coordinator for the environmental watchdog group Great Lakes United. "It's very worrying, and the fact that we are doing absolutely nothing to address sources of climate change is absolutely irresponsible."

Dan O'Riordan, the Lake Erie specialist at the Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago, didn't discredit the reports' findings. But he insisted that other concerns, such as water diversion and pollution, are more pressing.

"The water being lost through climate change is not in our top 10," he said. "We have other fish to fry, so to speak."

John J. Freidhoff, a researcher with the Great Lakes Center at Buffalo State College, also is not convinced.

"It's really just too early to make a decision," he said. "Water levels have fluctuated a lot in the last [few] hundreds of years, so it's hard to put that to global warming."


e-mail: citydesk@buffnews.com

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