Dry winter, spring means water levels on Ontario rivers and lakes at historic lows

Low water levels on Ontario lakeI had a short article over the weekend about low water levels in Ontario and the impact on hydroelectric generation. Obviously, this is an issue that goes beyond Ontario’s borders. Record low snowfall over the winter and a dry spring has erased more than 1,000 megawatts of hydroelectric capacity in Ontario, and it’s likely to get worse. I just got off a conference call with the International Joint Commission, which regulates water flows and use on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. Clearly, it’s not just the rivers that are suffering. “The levels of all of the Great Lakes are below average, and indeed are lower than they were at this time last year,” according to commission staff. “Lake Ontario is 30 centimetres, or one foot, below the average for mid-May and 36 centimetres below a year ago.” (Picture to left was taken by Gord Miller, Ontario Environmental Commissioner. It’s a shot of a small lake in northern Ontario. Thanks for the pic, Gord).

Lake Ontario levels are determined by inflows from Lake Erie, inflows from rivers, and precipitation, minus evaporation and consumption. Precipitation from January to end of April has been at a record low. “It’s the lowest amount for that four-month period since records began in the 1900s.” Now, I won’t make a direct connection to climate change here, since a single season of record-low precipitation is not evidence of global warming. However, this situation does illustrate how sensitive we are to climate change and how much the impact could truly be if low precipitation and dry winters become more common as a result — and I’m guessing they will. The following comments from Andrew McCammon, executive director of the Ontario Headwaters Institute, puts it this way:

Lower lake levels will result in less power available from hydro-electric generating stations, as well as in stranded docks and exposed rocks in cottage country. But they may also result in increased dredging costs for marinas, reduced loads on Great Lakes ships, the loss of coastal wetlands, changes in fish species, and potential impacts on municipal infrastructure such as the re-location of drinking water in-take pipes. More importantly from an ecological perspective, lake levels tend to be an early indicator of what is transpiring upstream. If a lake is down 1.5 meters, what has already taken place upstream? Is a drier climate reducing our wetland complexes? Have small streams withered? Are whole forests drier, with greater potential for fire, pest infestation, and other impacts?

Everything is interconnected. We forget about this too often.