Don’t dig a deeper hole for the Great Lakes

First do no harm. That’s a maxim for the medical profession – and we should follow it when it comes to responding to Great Lakes crises.

Make no mistake: this crisis is real and scary. In Lake Michigan, for example, the water level is a full 5 feet lower than it was during the record highs of 1987. Five feet! So today you could be standing on a beach with your feet dry, when 25 years ago the water would have been up to your neck.

The low water levels are really socking it to our region’s businesses – cargo ships have to leave freight behind to lighten their loads; marinas are high and dry; fishing boats can’t get through channels. News outlets are taking notice, documenting hardships in Michigan and Wisconsin. As water levels continue to fall, it’s become a national story covered by CNN and National Geographic.

What’s the cause? One of the best analyses is from WBEZ’s Lewis Wallace, who reports on a combination of factors: natural cycles, less precipitation, more evaporation, less ice cover, and the results of dredging in the St. Clair River.

It’s pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that climate change is playing a major role and that while lake levels may rebound, the long term trend is downward.  Precipitation rates, evaporation and ice cover all are climate-driven, and as the air warms, at least the last two (evaporation and ice cover) will only get worse.

So far, the response has been short term actions focused on shipping: more money for dredging harbors and channels. Michigan has freed up $11 million in state funds to pay for more dredging. And then there’s all the money in the national Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund — $6 billion accumulated that has NOT been spent on harbor maintenance because the government has used it to fill in other parts of the budget. There are proposals to use more of that money to dredge.

But it seems to me that “dredge, baby, dredge” isn’t going to solve this problem. Sure, we have to do some emergency dredging. But if lake levels really are trending down, what’s the long term answer? We can’t keep on digging out the lakes or the Great Lakes will begin to look like the Great Canyons. It’s worth remembering that dredging is what helped get us into this mess in the first place – the St. Clair River dredging lowered lake levels by at least an estimated 20 inches.

And what do we do with all of the dredged materials – dump them in the lakes like we do now? That’s making the Lake Erie dead zone larger and more severe.

So here’s an idea: can we flip the solution? Rather than trying to save our shipping only by deepening channels and harbors, can we find a way to raise water levels or at least to slow their decline? That would mean taking actions like regulating lake levels better, conserving more water, restoring wetlands, increasing groundwater infiltration, and reducing the sudden runoff produced by increasing severe storms. Those are not easy and they have their own dangers.

But this approach is worth a much closer look before we dig ourselves into a deeper hole.

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