Great Lakes drain

Alex Doty • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:07 PM

As the levels of the Great Lakes continue to recede, some are pointing the finger at the St. Clair River as the culprit.

Findings recently released by the Georgian Bay Association indicate the decline in levels in Lakes Michigan and Huron is tied to American and Canadian navigational channel dredging, river bed mining and shoreline alteration projects near Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario.

The association's report says more than 2 billion gallons of water a day flows out of the St. Clair River — or more than 3,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. All of this water eventually ends up flowing over Niagara Falls and out to the Atlantic Ocean.

Joel Brammeier, of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said it's important that the issue be looked at closely.

“Great Lakes water is far too precious to squander away through an increasing hole in the channel," he said.

Brammeier and other experts are calling for some type of remedial action to try and reverse the course and bring up the region's water levels. This includes underwater barriers to slow the water's velocity.

"With lake levels nearing record lows, all hands on deck should be focused on plugging a gap we've known about for years," Brammeier said.

According to Tom O’Bryan of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, dredging in the St. Clair River has resulted in a drop in the lakes' long-term average by about 10-16 inches. That's because, from the 1930s through the 1960s, the St. Clair River was dredged for commercial shipping purposes, he explained.

As a result of the dredging, the lakes are almost 2 feet lower than they would otherwise be if no action had been taken.

O’Bryan said that not all Great Lakes-area dredging work has resulted in lowering the lake levels.

“Dredging the Grand Haven harbor won’t do that,” he said.

O’Bryan speculates that the drop in levels we're experiencing now might have been beneficial for shoreline residents and communities during record high water marks of the 1980s.

“People would have been begging us to get rid of the water,” he said.

Discounting the dredging of the St. Clair River as the main cause of the low lake levels, O’Bryan said other factors are likely behind the decline.

“It’s all fluctuations based on weather — that is what the big factors are,” he said.

O'Bryan said this spring's project to dredge the Grand Haven harbor has been approved and the $541,275 contract awarded to the King Co. of Holland.

“Supposedly, we will have it done by the 15th of May,” he said.

O'Bryan added that the approximately 95,000 yards of dredged material will be suitable for beach nourishment.

As officials try to deal with the dropping water levels, those fighting for dredging dollars say the battle continues.

“There has been progress made, but it has been slow,” said Marci Cisneros, director of the Grand Haven Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, and a member of the Great Lakes Port Collaborative Board. “It has been a combination of awareness and getting legislators on board.”

She said that while there hasn’t been extra money allocated for dredging, there is progress being made in letting people know about the dire need for it.

Grand Haven is getting federal dollars for dredging to keep its harbor operational, but other communities aren’t so lucky.

“There’s some communities that have had to take on the task on their own because they can’t wait for the government,” Cisneros said. “It’s still a work in progress.”

Leslie Newman of Spring Lake said the lower water levels could help spread unwanted invasive species along local shorelines.

“There is a lot more room for them to grow,” she said. “They don’t grow in the water, they grow to the water.”

With more land being exposed along shorelines and the islands along the Grand River, Newman said there is the potential for phragmites to spread in this area, taking up land that was once under water.

She also noted that channels that need to be dredged to accommodate boat navigation could be spreading phragmites, since the weed's agents are present in the muck.

“As the water level gets lower, it is harder to get through there,” she said.

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