Cottage Concerns, or Hope Springs Eternal

I am beginning to have a lot of sympathy for doctors at cocktail parties. Everyone likes a chance to quiz a specialist, but who wants to be the one to tell people that their most ingrained habits are transforming their favourite places, not necessarily for the better?

I study how Canada and the US managed the Great Lakes in the twentieth century, I want to work in water management…and all anyone wants to ask me is when they’re going to fix the water levels in Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. 'They' being some sort of government body - nobody seems to expect the chore to attract investors.

I’ll never forget the first time I realised that humans control the levels of the Great Lakes. I was working for the International Joint Commission after undergrad, trying my best to make myself useful while soaking up the atmosphere of my favourite international institution. One of the staff’s preoccupations that winter was revising the Orders of Approval for the St. Lawrence River, and some expert or other mentioned that it would affect Erie and Ontario’s levels. Then I learned about the Sault Ste. Marie channel and the diversions into Lake Superior. Can you believe it? The largest lake in North American is controlled by a handful of river dams?

But it’s true. Canada and the U. S. have controlled three of the five Great Lakes since the early twentieth century.

Given that, why not control the other two? Or, as most people phrase it, why is my beautiful boathouse on Georgian Bay so far from the water’s edge and when are those politicians going to fix it?

After nearly two years of archival research, my well-informed humanist's conclusion is that the lake levels vary a lot. Every ten years or so, people complain that the levels are too high or two low. It’s like clockwork, popping up in the historical record every decade or so for the past century. Complaints pour in, solemn assessments are made (of erosion damage if the levels are high, or of the cost of docks out of water if they’re low), and eventually everyone realizes for the umpteenth time that the engineering works required to control Huron and Michigan would be prohibitively expensive.

The fact is, the Lake Huron/Lake Michigan/Georgian Bay group has too wide an outlet into Lake Erie for a dam to work efficiently. Every ten years or so, people complain that the levels are too high or too low, and ask their governments to do something about it. The governments study the problem, run the numbers, and decide that it will cost too much. Eventually the levels go in the other direction, people are happy for a time, and then the cycle starts again.

When my family and friends ask me about the current low levels around a campfire, they have lots of ideas about the cause. All of them come up around the campfire or while drinking something cold on the dock, and everyone has a different theory about why the government of (insert jurisdiction here) refuses to either build the necessary control dams or halt the outflows. Among the favourites:

All of these are wrong, but it's true that water leaves the middle two Lakes through Lake Erie and the Chicago River. The ‘hole in the river’ hypothesis is simply wrong, but it's a durable urban legend.

There are some better explanations for the variability in lake levels. First, a geological explanation:

Geologic uplift explains some of the variation in water levels; instead of the lakes aren’t getting lower, the rocks are getting higher. This is part of a long, long process that has to do with the glaciers receding. As the weight of the ice leaves, the land it rested on 'springs back' over time. Like when your cat finally gets off your chest and lets you breathe again.

Every time this comes up, I wonder why nobody noticed this sooner. It never comes up in the discussions of high or low lake levels between 1910 and 1970, but it's a common explanation by the early 2000's. Did it really just start to be apparent? I’d love a good primer with extensive footnotes. In any case, geological uplift is real, but it works on a much longer time scale than the pendulum of human concern over Great Lakes levels.

And then there are what I think of as the best explanations:

As I said, natural variation has brought the Lakes' levels to human attention about every ten years over the past century. There’s a good chance, though, that the current fluctuations are more dramatic than in the past, and I think the most likely explanation is changing precipitation patterns. The problem with climate change is that no provincial, municipal or national government can fix it alone. My cottage friends don’t really want to hear that they should stop driving their cars or stop eating so much beef, or that letters to their MPPs can't produce a solution anytime soon.

They also don’t want to hear that this trend will almost certainly reverse several more times within their lifetimes. Over the next few years, I fully expect that the litany of complaints about shallow drafts and docks high and dry will transmute to fretting about whether the lake's going to flood the fire pit or drown the wild blueberry bushes. The historian in me wishes that people understood long time scales better, but my inner canoeist understands the concern very well.

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