Lake Superior Regulation: Addressing Uncertainty in Upper Great Lakes Water Levels

The Lake Superior Regulation: Addressing Uncertainty in Upper Great Lakes Water Levels study (the Study) brought together various levels of government as well as stakeholders and experts through the International Joint Commission (IJC) to consider water levels given improved modelling technologies and evolving best practices in stakeholder engagement. While the impetus of the Study was largely guided by the IJC’s broad directive to understand the effects of and options to address changing climate conditions on the Great Lakes, stakeholder engagement brought increased clarity and specificity to the Study objectives. In particular, stakeholders expressed concern regarding ecosystem health, flooding, erosion, property values, shipping costs, water supply, and recreation. While the Study Board does not have the mandate to implement actions, the Study concluded by providing a multitude of recommendations. The most crucial of these recommendations was the promotion of a new regulation plan for Lake Superior which was shown to perform better under both drought and flood conditions. The new regulation plan was formed through consultation with relevant stakeholders who helped to create and compare over 100 alternative regulation plans. Despite a multitude of recommendations, the Study also concluded that modelling and projections should be improved in relation to the Great Lakes system in order to gain higher level of certainty as to the future risks facing the area.

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Understanding and Assessing Impacts

As is apparent by the title of the Study, the central issue facing Lake Superior is an uncertainty as to future water levels thanks to experienced and anticipated changes to the climate. In order to better understand these changes and their effects on stakeholders, the Study undertook an analysis of hydroclimatic conditions. In conducting this hydroclimatic analysis the Study aimed to gain a deeper understanding of precipitation and evaporation in the Great Lakes, examine the accuracy of historical data, and utilize new modelling to assess the potential impacts of climate change on water levels. The Study also utilized stakeholder engagement to further understand concerns surrounding uncertain water levels many of which are outlined in the Short Description section. Some of the future climatic risks could be associated with low lake levels which could affect municipal water supply, ecosystems and property values amongst other impacts. The primary challenge in understanding potential impacts of unpredictable lake levels has been a lack of certainty related to information provided by the hydroclimatic analyses. Current uncertainties could be minimized through more robust and coordinated data collection efforts. In this vein, the Study calls for an expansion to formal data collection programs in the Great Lakes region and a continued effort to improve upon analyses undertaken by the Study.

Identifying Actions

In order to identify actions, the Study utilized a shared vision model. Shared vision planning is “an iterative and collaborative process through which participants can better understand the implications of any regulatory decision”. Through this model participants created over 100 alternative regulation plans. Of the more than 100 plans created, the Study Board selected 4 of the highest performing plans for further consideration. Of these 4 it was apparent that 1 of such plans performed better or as well under all water level scenarios including extreme lows and highs. This highest performing regulation plan was eventually selected by the Study Board. Aside from the formation of new regulation plans, the Study also identified the benefits that could be attained from the introduction of an adaptive management strategy. The need for an adaptive management strategy was arrived at by the Study Board following admission that new regulation plans alone could not thwart the negative impacts of extreme lake levels. Further, hard engineering interventions are accompanied by prohibitive costs and long timelines for implementation. Proposed adaptive management strategies would include elements such as ongoing monitoring and modelling, iterative risk assessment, “information management and outreach”, and multi-level government collaboration. The Study notes that collaboration amongst many parties in order to create a standardized adaptation management approach may prove challenging.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The planning phase of the Lake Superior Regulation: Addressing Uncertainty in Upper Great Lakes Water Levels study has produced a variety of outcomes including the proposal of a new regulation plan, and the need for a coordinated adaptive management strategy. Along with the production of recommendations, the planning phase also aided in identifying areas which are impractical to pursue at this time as well as opportunities for improved efficiency. Firstly, the Study identified that clarity and ease of regulation could be gained by consolidating the current Lake Superior Regulation with its various subsequent amendments into a single, easy to understand document. Second, The Study allowed for the conclusion that hard engineering restoration efforts (particularly at a specific point near Lake Michigan) would produce adverse effects to stakeholders and carry a substantial price tag and so should be abandoned. Further, while multi-lake regulation was originally considered as a potential strategy to address uncertainty related to Lake Superior water levels it was determined that such a path would also be accompanied by extremely high costs and may prove to be ineffective thanks to a multitude of factors particularly surrounding the uncertainty of future climatic conditions in the broader Great Lakes region. It has been noted that a strengthening hydroclimatic monitoring and modelling will be a necessary step to effectively assess future risks. Complications stemming from the need for inter/intra-governmental coordination may pose a barrier to such monitoring.

Next Steps

As briefly outlined in the Identifying Actions section of this case study summary, the study recommends that a new regulation plan be adopted for Lake Superior. Next, an adaptation management strategy is suggested in order to facilitate ameliorated hydroclimatic monitoring, additional forms of relevant data collection, as well as a host of improvements to inter- and intra-governmental coordination. Crucial to improving coordination within and between governmental agencies for the purpose of administering an adaptive management strategy is the creation of a Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Levels Advisory Board. In order to create a new advisory board as well as to implement an adaptation management strategy the Study notes that the International Joint Commission (for whom the Study was conducted) must pursue funding opportunities with relevant governments. Further, the Study recommends the establishment of a “a collaborative regional adaptive management study” in order to better guide the creation of an adaptation management strategy and to build upon the work that was done within this Study. Importantly, the study also finds that further resources should not be directed towards “multi-lake regulation in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system” thanks to the aforementioned climatic uncertainty, prohibitive costs and institutional requirements that would accompany such a pursuit.