Water Levels


Targets for the GLC are defined by human ability to manage or control an event such as extremely high or low water levels. The GLC recognizes the concerns of other interests in the Great Lakes and thus steers away from extreme strategies. Under no circumstance are decisions made that will benefit one region or interest at the expense of another.

Controls exist to manage Great Lakes water levels, but the GLC contends that they are not efficiently utilized. The natural factors that affect water levels are precipitation, evaporation, and run off. Structures have been designed and engineered to control the flow of water through the Great Lakes system. Mitigating extreme conditions is not a goal and has not been accomplished.

During the last century, a combination of decisions such as land filling, construction, and dredging have permanently altered the natural flows through the Great lakes system. In addition, man made diversions both into and out of the Great Lakes have had a smaller effect. Water flow is controlled at three locations: Sault St. Marie, the upper Niagara River, and the St. Lawrence River at Cornwall, Ontario. Each location has an operational plan associated with the control structures.

State and Provincial mentality is to retain as much water in the system as possible, no matter what the levels conditions are. The GLC is amazed at this logic during periods of high levels when there is too much water in the Basin. It does however oppose diverting the precious fresh water for commercial purposes that do not benefit the Great Lakes resource.

A vertical dimension of the Great Lakes is offered here to provide perspective to the map of the basin so that the viewer may better understand how the system works now and also what the GLC plan that follows could accomplish. 

  • Plan 2012 defines the limits of the outflow from Lake Superior
  • The 1950 Niagara River Treaty defines the flow through the narrow and shallow upper Niagara River
  • Plan 2014 establishes the limits for flow out of Lake Ontario

These operational plans allow the Army Corps of Engineers [ACOE] , under the direction of the International Joint Commission [IJC], to time and quantify the release of water from one lake to another. This activity, which is limited by the Orders of Approval set up by the Boundary Waters treaty of 1909 between the United States and Canada, can cause water levels that are higher or lower than the long term average.

The unnatural alteration of water flows has been primarily driven by the need to enable hydropower and commercial shipping interests. Little consideration appears to have been given to the impact of water level decisions to states, provinces, municipalities, the environment, and individuals.

During high water periods, more water can be allowed to flow through the Great lakes by better planning and coordination. During low water periods, better control adjustments can restrict the rates at which water leaves each lake. There are competing interests for each strategy, to be sure but the logic is to mitigate extreme water level conditions.

The competing interests during low water regimes are; hydropower that prefers steady flow rates and States and Provinces who suffer potential economic impacts through shipping, recreational boating, and associated tourism.

A fundamental problem with the three current Great Lakes control plans is that they are independent and not well coordinated which often results in less than optimum levels. As a result of general discontent among the interests, the Governments of Canada and the United States have funded a new study to revisit Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River flows. A similar plan has been proposed for the Upper Great Lakes [those above Niagara Falls].

Both Environment Canada and the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers created mathematical computerized models of the Great lakes system early on, but the GLC believed them to be skewed to benefit high water interests, so in 1998, the International Great Lakes Coalition developed and presented a comprehensive coordinated flow control plan to minimize many of the water level problems experienced with existing plans and strategies. Though the International Joint Commission does not acknowledge it, this plan very well may have influenced the new study plans.

The GLC control plan that has been discussed favorably with the Great Lakes control boards, but rejected by the International Joint Commission for economic reasons, is presented here in detail as a model for responsible management of the Great Lakes resource.

The hydro graph compares results of the GLC control plan illustrated in colors to existing plans shown in black.

The GLC Control plan has the potential to better protect the ecosystems of the Great Lakes, better facilitate existing hydro power plants.Total benefits would add 435 megawatts during heat waves to avoid blackouts and exceed a billion dollars over the first decade! It would provide additional electric power during peak requirments, reduce damage to public and private beaches from high water levels, and partially restore water levels and river flows to those that existed prior to human interventions to the Great Lakes system.

The GLC plan does require another control structure which is best described as a by pass of the Black Rock Canal to offset the constipation from considerable restrictions already in place during periods of extreme high water levels. The cost is estimated at approximately 50 million dollars. The cost / benefit ratio would be 50 / 1000 = 0.5 over 10 years.The benefits would pay back the costs in only six months time!

This is not a new idea in that it was considered by the International Joint Commission during the infamous Levels Reference Study in 1993. At that time it was rejected in favor of land side management to deal with the adverse consequences of fluctuating water levels.

Modification of Lake Superior regulation plan 2012 which targets water levels in the top half of the range will control at a level approximately 7 inches lower than the current plan. Thus, a partial restoration of the range between highs and lows to those that existed before the control works were built.

Upgrades to the Black Rock Canal along side the Niagara River across Squaw Island would partially compensate for man made restrictions caused by various structures in the river to allow more flow from Lake Erie when water levels are high and less flow during low level regimens. This by pass also has great potential to increase flows to the hydro power plants during summer heat waves to avoid black outs. In all honesty though, there is considerable resistance to this part of the GLC plan from the I J C. All government judgement seems to be skewed against water level management.

Modifications of the Lake Ontario regulation plan 2014 would decrease the incidence of high flow rates in the St. Lawrence River resulting in a marked reduction in flooding at Montreal and reduced interruption to shipping at the Moses Saunders Dam at Cornwall, Ontario.

The combination of these proposals would reduce flooding and storm driven erosion problems throughout the Great Lakes system, reduce electric energy losses caused by river flow rates that exceed the capacity of existing power plants, and increase availability during times of shortages.

Many structures, including landfills that have been placed in the Niagara River, especially during the last 30+ years, concern the GLC because the out let of the upper Great Lakes [those above Niagara falls] is located here. After many years of study, the GLC developed this mathematical computerized plan to control flows during a wide range of levels scenarios.

The challenge is that enormous political contributions from the shipping industry have effectively eliminated the GLC control plan from consideration. However, the GLC has enough presence with the decision makers of the governments that it has the potential to eventually overcome this considerable blocking factor.

This chart describes the effects of man made restrictions to flow in the Niagara River. The 9.38 inch increase during the last 30 years includes about 3 inches due to isostatic rebound.

To illustrate how the natural flows through the Great Lakes system have been altered at the highest elevation [Lake Superior] and all throughout the course, the flow direction of the Albany River in Canada was reversed in the 1940's so that water flowed from Hudson Bay [actually James Bay] into, rather than out of Lake Superior. This action was taken to accommodate hydro power generation at Long Lac / Ogoki and, while not a major factor, tends to increase the natural level of Lake Superior.

The GLC contends that the impact of existing flow control structures in the upper Niagara River on outflows from Lake Erie has not been adequately understood nor verified with conclusive data. For instance, the full operational capability of the Chippewa Grass Island Pool [CGIP] controls has been limited to treaty pool elevations and has thus not been considered by the Control Board as a means of improving management of Great Lakes water levels.

The GLC strongly supports returning the Lake Erie water levels and Niagara River flow relationship to that which existed prior to the 1960's New York Power Authority construction projects in the river. However, flexibility should be provided during emergencies.

The GLC vision that a scientific analysis to determine full operational capacity of the CGIP controls that is not limited to treaty pool elevations has been incorporated into the Upper Great Lakes Plan of Study [UGLPOS]. Such an evaluation is intended to quantify possible improvement in the management of Lake Erie water levels. An important aspect is to establish a full understanding of the impact of the Buckhorn Dikes.

The existing controls at Niagara are the Welland Canal, the level of the Chippewa Grass Island Pool, and the level of the Niagara River immediately up stream from the Buckhorn Dikes. There appears to be too much empasis on levels at Niagara and not enough on flows. The total effect of these three datums is not known because the composite result has, believe it or not, never been evaluated. At least, if it has, it has never before been made available to the public. However, from NOAA data and the Niagara Control Board reports, engineers have concurred that the amount is sizeable.

The GLC request to the authorities for a scientific analysis to quantify the effect upon the level of Lake Erie and thus on all of the upper Great Lakes of the man-made restrictions in the Niagara River has been accepted. It will be considered in the UGLPOS.