Managing Great Lakes Water Levels Adaptively in Response to Changing Climate Conditions


The Laurentian Great Lakes contain an abundance of fresh water, collectively representing approximately 20% of the fresh surface water available globally. Despite the enormity of this resource, water levels and flows in the Great Lakes are subject to fluctuations caused by changing climate conditions that have cascading impacts on the coastal ecosystem and the regional economy. Proactive management of this freshwater resource has become increasingly important as we have observed recent changes in regional climate in the Great Lakes, and we anticipate the potential for even greater changes to occur in the future.

Within the past 15 years, the International Joint Commission (IJC) has conducted major studies on the Lake Ontario/St. Lawrence River and the Upper Great Lakes systems to evaluate the impact of water level regulation on the ecosystem and a range of economic interests, including commercial navigation, hydropower, and recreational boating. Early on, these evaluations focused primarily on the impact of current and potential alternative water level regulation plans relative to historical water level conditions. It was quickly realized, however, that these plan evaluations must take into consideration the range of potential water level conditions that may result from even minor shifts in the climate of the Great Lakes region.

LimnoTech has been at the forefront of assessing ecological impacts in the Great Lakes in response to changing climate and lake water level and flow conditions since the early 2000s. We have worked closely with the Ecosystem Technical Working Groups and the Study Boards commissioned for each IJC study to synthesize complex biological research into an integrative modeling framework that can be used to support management decisions with respect to coastal ecosystem impacts. The resulting “Integrated Ecological Response Model” (IERM) that we have developed in collaboration with several dozen U.S. and Canadian researchers represents the stateof- the-science with respect to evaluating the impact of Great Lakes basin climate and hydrology on coastal ecosystem health, including indicators of wetland habitat availability and fish and wetland bird populations.

As the results of the IJC water level studies continue to be evaluated and synthesized, it has become clear that an “adaptive management” approach is needed to track and respond to changes in Great Lakes climate and hydrology over the coming years and decades. An adaptive management approach for the Great Lakes involves leveraging the modeling tools developed under the original water level studies to identify key areas where additional data must be collected to further our understanding of the system. Additional data collected to address these needs can then be fed back into the modeling tools to improve our ability to forecast ecological and economic impacts resulting from shifts in water level conditions.

LimnoTech is continuing to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environment Canada to actively support adaptive management needs. Our recent and ongoing work has included modernizing the IERM software and advising on approaches for integrating newly collected wetland habitat data into the model. These enhancements represent the next step in adapting the IERM to support adaptive management, and will result in improved capability for forecasting coastal ecosystem impacts in response to changing climate conditions in the Great Lakes.

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