Sand washing down the St. Clair River is acting as a slurry, restricting the flow from Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.
That could be one reason why the two middle lakes are reaching a “crisis high” condition, Mary Muter told the Wasaga Beach Men’s Probus Club during a presentation on Great Lakes water levels.
Muter, the chairperson of the Georgian Bay Great Lakes Foundation, and a former Georgian Bay Baykeeper, said the International Joint Commission needs to do more to control the flow going down the St. Clair, which she sees as one of the main factors behind the dramatic fall and rise of Huron and Michigan.
An image of the river from 2014 showed very little sand making its way through the system; three years later, the presence of sand is evident.
“It’s changing the river’s flow … it’s like pouring water, and then pouring thick soup,” she told club members.
The cause of the change is the height of the water in Huron, which hit a record high for the month of January this year, and is expected to hit an all-time high this summer. It’s picking up material from beaches in the region, she said, and is flowing over structures that had been built to hold back the sand.
At the top end of the lakes, where the St. Mary River drains from Lake Superior, Muter said the International Joint Commission should reduce the flow at one of only two control points on the lakes (the other is at the point where Lake Ontario flows into the St. Lawrence).
The range between the high and low on Lake Superior is approximately four and a half feet. On Michigan and Huron, the swing is six and a half — and could be as much as seven and a half if water levels reach the levels anticipated this summer.
Muter said residents on Lake Superior, particularly on the U.S. side, are vocal when it comes to the level of the lake.
“Americans know how to speak up, and over in Duluth (on Lake Superior), they’re screaming loud about their water levels,” she said. “(Politicians) are not hearing from us — we’re just too polite.”
Residents along Lake Michigan are speaking up, Muter said, and the state is considering the declaration of a shoreline emergency.
High water levels are affecting more than just the stability of the beachfront. It’s also creating a condition in which water is getting into areas where there is dying vegetation, which is now releasing nutrients into the water.
“We could have shoreline water quality deteriorated to the point where it would be unsafe for recreational use,” she said. “If that happens, it would be a disaster.”
It could also have an impact on septic systems of cottages along the shoreline — putting those systems potentially under water.
“We don’t have enough licensed septic system installers to come and relocate those systems. We don’t physically have enough holding tanks to provide temporary service,” she said. “Septic systems were under water last summer, and it’s only going to get worse.”