Where has all the water gone?

Over the past few years, the water levels have dropped dramatically in lakes Huron and Michigan, which are actually one body of water. That this has happened is not in dispute: photographs by cottagers on Georgian Bay record the changing shore line. What isn't entirely clear is why: the International Joint Commission, which manages water shared by Canada and the United States, acknowledges that climate change is partly to blame because shorter winters and hotter summers have increased evaporation from the lakes. Another culprit, however, is dredging in the St Clair River, which links Lake Huron, Lake St Clair, and Lake Michigan. In order to allow larger commercial vessels to use the river, it has been made wider and deeper over the last century, lowering the lake water levels by at least sixteen inches, the government says.

Or that's what the government will admit to. We know damn well it's more. We're missing at least four feet of water out of Georgian Bay, and we have the photos and the marooned docks to prove it. This photo shows Johnson's Harbour in Owen Sound, beside the Meaford Tank Range. In the early 1980s, this area was under water and easily navigable. The water you see in the photo is the result of dredging paid for by local cottage owners.

The falling water levels are not just inconvenient for summer residents who have to build new docks for their motor cruisers. They affect the entire economy of the region and have a direct impact on local people, not only for recreation but also because, with the decline in industry and commercial fishing, tourism is the main source of employment around Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.

An example of this is the Chi-Cheemaun ("Big Canoe" in the Ojibway language), the ferry that for the last forty years has carried tourists between Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula and South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island. In 2013, the ferry's clockwork schedule (mid-May to mid-October) was delayed because the Owen Sound harbour was too shallow to accommodate the ferry. The fenders on the dock needed to be lowered before the ship could safely accept passengers. At the time, Ontario's minister for culture and tourism, Michael Chan, told the Globe and Mail, "People's lives should not be dependant on the water level." He demanded that Transport Canada fix the problem.

This year, unlike the other Great Lakes, the water levels in Huron-Mighigan have not recovered. It remains to be seen whether the Chi-Cheemaun will sail on time.

A significant issue in the management of the Great Lakes is the fact that they're shared between Canada and the United States. Our national attitudes towards conservation differ, as does our willingness to legislate to combat climate change. Individuals in both countries notice the water loss and question its cause, but there is no vehicle for meaningful action.

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