Water, water (not) everywhere
By Vivian Song
Published November 1, 2007
If the Great Lakes basin were a country, it would be the third richest in the world.
The region generates 50% of Canada's gross domestic product and is home to 40 million people -- 30% of Canada's population and 10% of the U.S. population.
The Great Lakes also hold 20% of the world's surface fresh water.
These are facts that Douglas Haffner uses to give perspective on the region's importance.
"Freshwater will become the biggest political issue," said the Canada research chairman for Great Lakes Research out of the University of Windsor.
Indeed, freshwater is predicted to become this century's oil. Southwestern U.S. bakes in historic droughts, and there are fears thirsty Americans are eyeing our water supplies -- some of which have already reached record low levels since record-keeping began.
The general consensus among Great Lakes experts is that warming temperatures will lower the water levels over time. While lake levels are constantly fluctuating, climate models predict that water levels will drop by more than one metre for lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie by 2030.
Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River were at their lowest level this month since 1964. This past August and September saw the lowest lake levels ever recorded in Lake Superior since record-keeping began. While some say it's because of dredging in the St. Clair River, others consider it a harbinger of what's to come.
"The general message is water levels will gradually drop," said Barry Smit, a professor of geography at the University of Guelph who has also been a lead author for three sessions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
"With climate change, one of the areas we're dealing with is there's less water for human use at a time when there's more demand."
Evaporation is expected to exceed precipitation. Warmer temperatures will result in less ice cover, which means more of the sun's energy will get absorbed by the dark water increasing evaporation, explains Jim Bruce, a water and climate consultant who helped establish the IPCC as a member of the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva.
The implications are huge for the shipping industry which uses the Great Lakes to ship billions of dollars worth of cargo every year. Lower water levels mean ships have to reduce their cargo load, for example, so as not to scrape lake-bottom.
"They load ships with lighter loads and that translates to more trips, increased costs, all of which trickle down to us customers," points out Robert Caldwell, a water resources engineer at Environment Canada.
Cargo in a 305 m long transporter, for example, has to be reduced 30 tonnes for every one-centimetre drop in the St. Lawrence waterway. Otherwise, channels require more dredging which pulls up all manner of sediments.
Lower water levels also means there's less water to pump for hydro-electricity which supplies 21% of Canada's energy. Ontario, New York and Quebec have seen less power production in the last few months, Caldwell said, owing to reduced water levels. A World Wildlife Fund report estimates annual hydro power losses to be between $240 million to $350 million in Ontario.
Cottagers with property along shorelines, meanwhile, aren't able to get to their boats because of low water levels. Boats are stuck in mud, cottagers have to wade through muck to get to the other side of the shore, or docks are on dry land.
"Some have had to walk as far out as 100 m to get to the water," Caldwell said.
An increase in algae blooms could also impact water quality, changing the taste and odour.
But when our southern neighbours come knocking for a glass of water, Canada won't be prepared, Haffner said.
"What bothers me about Canada is we don't have a water policy," he said.
"I'm frustrated and appalled as a scientist because it will be the biggest issue ... Water diversion will happen. It is going to happen."