Great Lakes be dammed

Imagine how the several million inhabitants of the Lake Chad watershed feel today.

The lake they depended on, once the sixth-largest in the world, is now a tenth of its former size.

Shrinking Lake Chad
The shrinking of Lake Chad between 1973 and 2001. NASA photo

Now imagine the 33 million inhabitants of the Great Lakes watershed in the same situation.

Ask anyone who lives on Georgian Bay and they’ll tell you it’s what they fear most. Their water levels have gone down for years leaving docks high and dry, new shoals exposed, and shipping at risk.

Dam it!

There are numerous major works of engineering on the Great Lakes already: the locks of the Welland Canal; the hydroelectric generators at Niagara Falls; the locks of the St. Lawrence. But while Lake Superior’s flow into the St. Mary’s River is partially controlled, Lakes Michigan and Huron, including Georgian Bay (they’re really one body of water) pour unfettered into the St. Clair River – the drainhole of the upper Great Lakes.

I’m not an engineer, but shouldn’t we plug the holes by damming the St. Clair River and the St. Mary’s River? These may be terrible interventions, but if there’s too much water, we can let it go. What can we do if there’s not enough?

It seems to me we should also consider damming Georgian Bay, creating a sixth Great Lake; this one would be all-Canadian and we could save that precious snow-melt from flowing downstream. And the Americans would be justified in doing the same to Lake Michigan, entirely within their boundaries.

GRAND Canal Project for James Bay - Lake Huron
Proposed route of GRAND Canal project. Public Domain image from Wikipedia.

These are big ideas, but they’re small-time compared to the GRAND Canal project, the brainchild of engineer Thomas Kierans. For decades, Kierans has been suggesting this giant engineering intervention. In the CANAL scheme, James Bay would be dyked, and one of the rivers flowing into James Bay would be reversed to flow into Georgian Bay. This would effectively create a mighty freshwater lake in the North, and more or less guarantee the flow of water into the lower Great Lakes, although that’s no help to Lake Superior.

These ideas are all controversial, if not terrifying. The GRAND Canal project would have a profound effect on First Nations people and the sensitive wetland environment around James Bay. And damming Georgian Bay, the St. Clair River, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior and would have major consequences that can’t entirely be foreseen.

But as our freshwater flows endlessly to the ocean, icecaps and glaciers melt, pollution taints our groundwater and bad management leads to irreplaceable losses… it’s time to at least take a serious look at the most drastic solutions. Either we find a way to maintain the existing, if not the historic lake levels – or we go the terrifying route of major man-made interventions.

Otherwise, we’ll be looking at the consequences of not acting in time. And we know what that looks like already: Not a drop to drink.

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