Where the water went: Georgian Bay and the future of the Great Lakes - Macleans.ca

Where the water went: Georgian Bay and the future of the Great Lakes

Concerned about the future of our water resources? Talk to someone from Georgian Bay. They’re living in that future


Kelso Park, Owen Sound, Ontario (Photo: David Newland)

Water levels are down on all the upper Great Lakes this year. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given the widespread drought in central North America—but on Georgian Bay, the water has been dropping steadily for years, and the results, especially among the iconic 30,000 Islands, are increasingly visible.

Concerned about the future of our water resources? Talk to someone from Georgian Bay. They’re living in that future.

Cottage and homeowners have extended their docks multiple times to reach the water. Some mow lawns where there once were beaches. (The photograph above shows a vast expanse of green in downtown Owen Sound that was underwater just a few years ago.)

Marinas are constantly dealing with boat draft and dredging—not to mention the fears of declining business if fishing is affected, or if destinations among the islands are no longer reachable by boat.

For municipalities, low water levels lead to concerns about tourism, fishing, pleasure boating, shipping, and crucially, local water supply.

Environmentalists, hunters and fishermen worry about the flora and fauna in this world-renowned stretch of Canadian shoreline.

Native Americans and First Nations have called the Great Lakes shores home for thousands of years. Their concerns go beyond environmental stewardship to a cultural connection to the Lakes that is unbroken from time immemorial.

For those in the shipping industry, or those who depend on it to deliver salt, sand, silica, oil, gravel, coal, ore, or passengers, low water levels mean concerns about their own livelihoods, and the future of shipping on the Bay.

It’s worrisome. People are wondering where the water went, and whether it will return.

Why does all this matter? Because every issue that affects Georgian Bay water levels threatens the Great Lakes as a whole.

25 million people in the Great Lakes watershed all want, need, depend on fresh water. And there’s nowhere else in the world to look for it.

We’re not just talking boating water, fishing water, walking-along-the-boardwalk-admiring-the-view-water. We’re talking drinking water for millions of people. We’re talking industrial power water. The Great Lakes turn the turbines at Niagara Falls that light the streets of New York. Great Lakes water cools the many nuclear power stations dotted around the Lakes.

The Great Lakes are the heart of North America, forming nearly the entire southern border of Ontario, and providing eight U.S. states with crucial freshwater ports.

The International Upper Great Lakes Study (IUGLS) has looked at the issue and made recommendations—but those recommendations don’t amount to decisive action to curb the loss. The study attributes upper Great Lakes water loss to climate change, low precipitation, degradation of the St. Clair river bed, and post-glacial rebounding of the earth’s crust. “Speed bumps” in the St. Clair river (the sole major outflow for the upper Great Lakes) have been suggested, notably by the Sierra Club, but not approved. There’s nothing, therefore, to stop the water flowing downhill.

Increasing the outflow from Lake Superior into Lake Huron-Michigan (they’re technically one body of water, including Georgian Bay and the North Channel) via the St. Mary’s River locks at Sault. Ste. Marie is the only option for raising water levels on Lake Huron-Michigan (including Georgian Bay) that makes use of existing engineering controls. But that would have the obvious detriment of lowering Lake Superior’s water levels as well. And Lake Superior is at the top, as its name implies.

The outflow of Lake Superior is ocean-bound, via Michigan-Huron, Lake St. Clair, the St. Clair River, the Detroit River, Lake Erie, the Niagara River, Lake Ontario and ultimately the St. Lawrence River. Together these bodies of water comprise 21 per cent of the world’s surface freshwater.  So you can consider the whole Great Lakes watershed a single basin, constantly trickling out, downstream to the ocean.

In an ideal world, precipitation keeps the water levels roughly constant. In an ideal world, the problems of the people living in small communities on the Georgian Bay shore would be minor and temporary, rather than indicators for the future of the region. In an ideal world, we could expect to see water levels rise again on Georgian Bay, as the IUGLS study spokesperson has suggested they will.

We are not living in an ideal world. We’re living in a world in which a single, sensitive reservoir of the world’s most important resource is visibly drying up. As one commenter noted, and as I have written elsewhere, the terrifying examples of Lake Chad and the Aral Sea should be top of mind for everyone.

Did you know 200 million tons of cargo is shipped via the Great Lakes annually, via the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway, a system of locks that allows ocean-going vessels to penetrate nearly to the centre of this continent?

Speaking of cargo: at this moment, a hundred towboats are at anchor along the Mississippi River, near Greenville, Mississippi. Despite constant dredging from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through this hot summer, the water in that mighty river is too low right now for the towboats to tug their cargo downriver.

Incidentally, the reversal of the Chicago River (a wonder of the world, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers) into the Des Plaines River means there is an outflow from Lake Michigan, into the Mississippi River system—a vast watershed in its own right, facing its own plight.

On not-so-faraway Georgian Bay, where locals and cottagers are mowing their beaches and extending their docks again, a lot of people will tell you that’s where the water went.

That’s not what the study says. But where the water went is not the key question anyway.

The key question is, what are we doing to save the water we have left?


The public consultation period for the International Upper Great Lakes Study runs until August 31, 2012. Share your comments.


Where the water went: Georgian Bay and the future of the Great Lakes

  1. The writer seems aware that Georgian Bay is part of Lake HuronMichigan, and that water levels on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are the same as those on Georgian Bay. So why not talk about water level issues in Chicago, Milwaukee and along the Canadian shore of Lake Huron? In the mid-1980s, water levels were at an all-time high on Lake Huron (go into InfGlobe and look at the Globe stories I wrote at the time). They were high in the early 1970s, low in the late 1960s, and were at all-time lows in the early 1930s, during the Dustbowl years.

    • I guess it depends on whose ox is gored. On an entirely different river, the US sucks almost everything from the Colorado leaving not much but mud for the Mexicans. I notice the bathtub ring at Hoover Dam is also way down. As the writer says, tomorrow is here for many people. I wouldn’t look too close at the “Chicago Sanitary Canal” to wait for that loss to be plugged. And don’t forget all the lovely gold course that have to be watered.

    • Hi Mark, It’s a fair comment – this blog post, though, was inspired by the particular condition of Georgian Bay (as shown in the photo above) and I tried to use that extreme case as an entree into the issue at large.

    • The lowest level (Lake Huron) recorded was in 1964, the highest in 1986. The levels have fluctuated within about a metre and a bit of chart datum. The level in Huron is now hovering around chart datum, the lowest level.
      The hope is that the level will gradually increase-as it always has. But there is no indication this is happening, or will happen.
      Geologists tell us there are 7 ancient shorelines on the lake, and in many places its possible to see three or four of these. We may be seeing the development of an 8th shoreline, as the water continues to drop. On the Bruce peninsula, at cave Point, there are wave action caused caves, fully 20 metres above the current water level. And, a few miles south of those, there are still rooted cedar tree trunks, carbon dated at 7000 years, 10 metres below the current water level. So water level fluctuations, over thousands of years, are nothing new to the lakes. Humans tend to see time in short spans, and build our docks and cottages thinking things will be static. Nature is never static.
      Meanwhile, the levels drop, the water quality deteriorates, along with property values, and our action plans seems to consist of hoping for better days.
      -Bill Desmond
      Point Clark Ontario

    • The real reason they don’t mention it is that every journalist in Ontario is up at the cottage in late August, and they write what they see.

  2. Maybe we should tell Chicago to stop sucking all the water out of lake Michigan and sending it down the Mississippi. Look it up on Wikipedia under Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

  3. I remember reading in the sixties that the lake levels were very low due to Chicago taking too much and that the levels would not rebound for 20 years. Several years later the high water was smashing the docks and boat houses built by those who believed it..

    • I remember 1986, when the water was nearly over Town Dock in Parry Sound. I particularly remember it because the water’s never been that high since. If I had any reason to think it would be, I might never have written this piece.

      • Well just hope we have another long, cold and percipitous snowfall like we did in ’86.

      • The question might better be, what prior reason you had to believe they’d be that high in ’86? The high levels of the 70’s and 80’s caused many old cottages, of 50-70 yrs age, to be consumed by the lakes. There was concern for the “unprecedented” water levels.

        Weather alone, and not climate, is enough to explain the current levels. Were there something more, an actual climatic change, we’d probably first see its effects in the aquifers in the regions surrounding the lakes, and we’re not seeing that. Lake levels are cyclical and nature is less than diligent in keeping that cycle regular.

        We might also remember that the earth still has every drop of water its had since creation. And we might also remember that man’s actions, through the Army Corps of Engineers, made a normal weather event in Hurricane Katrina and its associated flooding, into a regional calamity. All in an effort to keep water levels at a “natural” level.

        Nature obstinately remains remarkably unconcerned with what man regards as normal. Man values stability and predictability over all else.

    • DVD – Blue Gold: World Water Wars.

  4. Jesse Ventura/Conspiracy Theory show stated that a security fenced off entity on the U.S. side was sucking water out of the great lakes, using it for bottling and selling, along with shipping it in giant bladders by ship to China. His crew went to the location. The show is on youtube and is called Jesse Ventura, Conspiracy Theory, Great Lakes episode. Here is part 1 but don’t know if disqus allows links. BTW, this episode has been around since 2010, so if Canada is concerned, it’s been TWO years since the episode aired. True or not? Has anyone checked out the possibility and acted accordingly? Theory, or not? The water is disappearing. Canada needs to investigate and know why.

    • DVD – Blue Gold: World Water Wars

      • Thank you.

    • The point on bottled water is well taken and exactly what entered my mind as soon as I started reading this article. Interestingly no one seemingly wants to admit that corporations are stealing what is a human right and selling it back to us (at a massive profit). Sadly I no longer have faith in the (bought and paid for) mainstream media to look into this situation and bring it to light. In the end it will take the people or fringe media to ask questions and demand answers.

      • Or…it would end when people stop buying bottled water. Supply and demand, or non-demand. At the same time, I do empathize with those whose H20 isn’t as pristine as the water I get; but when I want water with me, I pack some in my stainless steel water bottle. I could never get past paying…for water. (depression era parents, lol.) As for any tacit corporate wink and a nudge pilfering, only CSIS would be equipped to know any existing details and to get it dealt with at subsequent negotiation tables in a proper fashion.

  5. instead of spending millions on studies, spend a few hundred thousand to drop huge concrete blocks in the St Clair River to replace the ones that were removed when they dredged it. problem solved. it worked on our cottage lake, just piling up rocks to slow outflow

    • If you can reword that into a 50+ page document, add a few completely ridiculous “criminal offences on paper” so that Emperor Harperius can put more people into his 9+ Billion dollar private prison system we don’t need…I bet they’ll look at it!

      Just remember…the innocent MUST SUFFER, and EVERYONE has to pay for it. If those two critera aren’t met…forget it…even if it was 250 pages of pure Ottawan psychopropagandrivel…

    • Sorry but a few hundred thousand won’t even cover the engineers coffee fund for the project.
      Its an International waterway-which means extremely complicated negotiations. And the channel there, about a kilometre wide is near a rapids in flow- @ 7-9K an hour, as anyone boating near it or trying to get up river there can tell you. The speed of the current has apparently self dredged that part of the river to @ 30 metres deep- just a big bathtub drain.
      But you have the right idea i think- some type of control on that outfall is a possible cure- though we should know by now that our intervening in Nature can have unforseen and even dangerous consequences.

      • Whoever controls the originating source is in the good position.

      • Problem is two fold. Ontario really does not want to reduce the flow out of Lake Huron as it feeds the water level in Lake Erie. Both Ontario and New York need that increased flow to feed their hydro dams at Niagara. Reduce the out flow from Lake Huron and you reduce the energy generated in Ontario.

  6. I’ve just finished a 34 day kayak trip around Lake Huron, and previously Georgian Bay. The water levels, now hovering around chart datum, or the lowest level recorded (1964), have no indication-none- that they are coming back. The lakes being ice free all winter increases evaporation, the record heat for the past ten years dramatically again increases evaporation, which is falling less and less on the lakes basin. But its not just inconvenient to cottage owners, or shipping- the more serious concern is the effect on water quality- algae blooms, high bacterial counts, increasing dense shoreline development with septic runoff, discharges of high nutrient water from sewage treatment, agricultural run-off from large farming operations made worse by tile drainage, industrial discharges, pharmaceuticals flushed into the sewer system and then out to the lakes, invasive species such as the goby, zebra mussles, lampreys, and the stocking of non native fish for so called sportsmen, as well as all the problems listed in the article, are all contributing to threaten the worlds largest body of fresh water.
    The lakes are in serious trouble- and so are we. Given Michigans near bankruptcy, and Ontario’s financial difficulties and seeming lack of political commitment, we’re all reduced to hoping nature will turn things around. But just hoping isn’t much of a plan, is it?
    -Bill Desmond
    Point Clark Ontario

  7. And this is the real issue isn’t it? The problematic economy pales in comparison to the thought of the chaos and violence that will ensue when nobody has enough water for survival.

  8. Ask Nestles where all the water is going!! They are bottling the water in Michegan for all the bottled water people drink!! That is where the water is going!!!

  9. 2 children per couple should help fix it, long term.

  10. Thanks everyone for the comments. Good to see that people are passionate about this issue.

    To those who say natural cycles are the cause of the low water issue, I can only say I hope you’re right.

    Because if you’re wrong, something terrible and irreversible is happening, and we’re doing nothing to stop it.

  11. I live on the Bay of Quinte and I can tell you the water level is where it normally is in late October when I bring my floating dock into a protected area. In fact, this week I will bring my dock to shelter so I can get it out of exposed lake before the November winds — two months early! The city of Belleville uses water from the Bay as its drinking water. How about this: Ban all sources of pollution to the Bay to protect the shallow waters. This includes: pesticidies on the four golf courses which feed the bay; outboard motors that spew waste into the water; and, control of the expanding populations of cormorants and geese. Nothing against these creatures but the water can’t handle the waste. Obviously, we need septic tank supervision as well a controlling the number humans who live on the precious water source. Who were those bozos suggesting Canada treble its population in the next 100 years? Right

    • Erie and Ontario are above chart datum, and within the normal 150 year lake level fluctuations.
      Check on line “water levels-lake Huron” and the site will give you water levels including graphs of all the lakes. Georgian Bay, though part of Lake Huron and thus Lake Michigan, is below chart datum, and now below the lowest level recorded in 1964. The water flushing out through the St. Clair River has raised levels in Erie and Ontario- Superior is near chart datum, while Huron is hovering within an inch or two.
      But its only a matter of time- if the levels keep dropping- that your dock will eventually be a hundred metres from the water, as those in G. Bay and parts of Huron.

      But you’re absolutely right with regards pollution. The lakes could handle the natural cycles over thousands of years. Over the past 150 or so, we’ve been screwing with nature, crapping in our own nest and treating the lakes like a big sewer. The chickens-or cormorants and geese- are coming home to roost.

  12. Where did the water go? The multiple references to cottagers MOWING THEIR LAWNS is a first clue to a place to start in conservation. Let me be really clear here: no one on Georgian Bay should have a lawn. No ,ore golf courses should be built. The amount of wasted water from watering lush patches of grass where nature never intended lush patches of grasss is ridiculous. Also, the chemicals in the fertilizer cause algae blooms. Here in Quebec, phosphates from cottage dishwashers, lawns, and pig farming RUINED the Eastern Townships — the blue-green algae has made them undrinkable and even unswimmable.

  13. “Global Warming”?
    Are you kidding, good luck selling this magazine, I’m done.
    What a joke!

  14. The only thing constant is change – nature changes every moment of every day – if we quit wringing our hands in fear and just deal with what’s in front of us we’d be a whole lot better off. We should not be tinkering with nature on this – we don’t know enough about all the various components of this system (even though I’m sure the engineers/scientists, etc. want to re-assure the masses that they do – they don’t). Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it – like everything else.

  15. Check out the Great Lake conspiracy on you tube, we are allowing China to take billions billions of gallons of our fresh water for them to pump directly into their aquafers.

  16. I do have deep/strong emotional concern for various aspects of life and the environment in Georgian Bay and the Great Lakes, but what to do with that motivation? Posting online amounts to expressing frustration and not much more unless it’s possible to influence the decision makers who may actually bring about meaningful-results influence.

    If the current low is the bottom of a continuing reasonably natural cycle, and we will see a rise again over the next 25 years, I am thankful and relieved . . . but no one is presenting clear evidence to indicate whether this is just the natural cycle or whether the decisions of some people have created an unnatural situation needing concerted corrective action sooner rather than later. In a sense this is like some of the issues around the term ‘global warming’ in that there are many contributing factors, from solar to human influence, and voices claiming a range of blame/change from “it’s all our fault, we need to fix this” to “there is conflicting data, it’s the way the earth works.”

    In my opinion, the philosophy of human action should be nearly the same in either case. It’s still a good idea to reduce pollution, minimize human impact, base decisions about future action in methods that do more good than harm – whether the proffered concept of ‘global warming’ is true and largely a result of poor human choices or not, whether the water level cycle is being ruined by human action or not.

    I don’t expect that we can reasonably counteract the influence of changes in the earth’s crust, an increase in solar output that heats the earth, or any other significant natural phenomenon. But there are simple things we can assess and, if seen as a negative
    contribution, altered. Is it that hard to determine whether or not human action has maintained an outflow from the lakes within the normal cycles, or if human action has abnormally maintained/increased the outflow? In other words, does the current outflow match historical outflows at times when the Lakes have been at the current levels? If man’s actions have created artificially greater outflows ‘toward the sea’ (southward or eastward) than would normally be seen with the lakes at these levels, the flows should be reduced to the amount that would have been ‘natural’ regardless of consequences to those counting on any artificially increased outflows. If people/homes/businesses on the lakes must accept the variations of nature, then those on the rivers should as well.

  17. I’ve read many of these posts as well as reports and comments by special interest groups that are concerned about Great Lakes water levels. There is a readily available, simple and permanent solution . Just build a hydro generating dam, complete with shipping locks, across the St. Clair river. This is not a new concept. It’s been done over and over, around the world. Canada and the United States did it in the 1950’s when they built the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Seaway was built in 1959 and the R.H. SAUNDERS POWER STATION at Cornwall, Ontario dams the entire St. Lawrence river, regulates water levels in Lake Ontario and generates 1,045 Megawatts of electricity. If this were done at an appropriate point in the St. Clair river, then water levels in Lakes Huron and Michigan would effectively be regulated – forever. And flow to the lower lakes Erie and Ontario would also be controlled. With the opportunity for power generation, the entire project would be self funding. If Europe or China had over 20% of the world’s fresh water reserve, all in a single interconnected water system, you can be assured that it would all have been dammed and regulated by now. Canada and the US are behaving like third world countries in regards to maintaining and controlling Great Lakes water levels – because they’ve done nothing but watch the water run down the drain. All they can manage are childish debates, lasting endless years about one of the world’s most precious resources, when a simple, complete and lasting solution could be implemented within 5 years. These two great countries have the money and the skill to complete this project. It would cost less than the expense of a single day in the Iraq war to do it. It would cost a small fraction of building a single nuclear power plant. Where is the political will, the foresight and the prudence we desperately need in curtailing the loss of an irreplaceable resource. If it were gold or silver running down the St. Clair river you know that every politician and business group would be scrambling to stop the loss. In fact, what is flowing out to the ocean is more precious than gold and silver, it is the essence of life on earth. Shame on all those that could and should act – and don’t.