Science, Tech & Environment

Great Lakes threatened by decreasing water levels

The Great Lakes on the U.S. Canadian border in 2000, are experiencing decreasing water levels because of warmer water temperatures. (Photo by SeaWiFS Project via Wikimedia Commons).

The decreasing water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are raising concerns over the future of the lakes' freshwater reserve.

A recent report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reveals that the two lakes are at the lowest levels ever recorded. The other Great Lakes are also below average.

Alan Steinman, director of the Annis Water Resource Institute at Grand Valley State University, says the low levels come from a combination of factors including warmer temperatures and less ice coverage, leading to more evaporation.

"Lower precipitation overall has contributed as well," he said. "A lot of people have suggested that it may be because we're taking more water out of the lakes, but that's really a very small percentage of the total water budget, it's more associated with climate."

Lower water levels make it more difficult for shippers to move cargo, requiring them to reduce the cargo on each vessel — a financial hit.

"We want to use our fresh water to stimulate our economy, but do it in a sustainable fashion. That blue water economy is threatened by these lower water levels because of all of the implications associated with access," Steinman said.

The Great Lakes' water levels are cyclical, Steinman said.

"Thirty years ago, we had all-time record high levels and the home owners were very concerned about their homes eroding into the lakes," he said.

But over the last 30 years, the levels have continued to be very low, Steinman says, and from an ecological view, the vegetation that surrounds these lakes is now being threatened.

"When that vegetation structure changes ... this habitat changes and it's really important for fish habitats, fish spawning, for birds, for wildlife," he said. "When they don't have the vegetation structure there that they need, these fish populations, these birding populations, are potentially threatened as well."

An International Joint Commissions study conducted from 2007 to 2012, concluded that the decline in water levels over the last 30 years is connected to changes in climate, Steinman said.

"The reality is, because these things are cyclical, chances are that water levels will come back. Whether they come back to the long-term mean, is another question," he said.

We need to start changing our behavior by adapting to lower water levels for longer periods of time, Steinman said. 

“This is how society needs to adapt, not just with lower water levels in the Great Lakes, but also to rising sea levels like we saw in Sandy. This is really the new normal," he said.

Since changing behavior is difficult to do, Steinman suggests small changes, such as turning off a running faucet when it isn't in use.

"Here in the Great Lakes region, we're guilty of complacence because we do have so much fresh water around us, it's easy to think that that's not a problem, but in fact it is," he said.

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