Quinte waters in the broader context of the Great Lakes

An examination of of some historical and contemporary aspects; shipping and the environment [*]


Illegal waste disposal and agricultural runoff are not to only causes of water pollution. Air pollution must shoulder some of the blame. For example, copper and nickel smelters in Sudbury Ontario emit fumes filled with sulphur dioxide. Traces of sulphur dioxide can be found in Georgian Bay, and the abundance of water plants has severely diminished in water bodies located near the smelters40. Coal gasification plants operated in Belleville from 1854-1947, Deseronto from 1886-1920 and Napanee from 1876-1921 and can be held responsible for some of the Bay of Quinte’s pollution during their time of operation41.

[Review 2020]     Sulphur dioxide (and much atmospheric pollution) is now a global problem (i.e. it gets into the high atmosphere and circulates globally – e.g. the Georgian Bay and water bodies near smelters are more of a past problem when stacks were shorter and emissions were more localised).

[Review 2020]     Coal is “organic” matter from the ground, meaning it contains many impurities. These impurities make coal fired generating plants such a concern. Mercury, lead, other heavy metals, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, etc. are some of the impurities that make coal fired generating plants of such great concern.

Profile of Great Lakes basin
[click image to enlarge]

Lowering lake levels are a recent Great Lakes cause for concern. The IJC is currently carrying out a study to determine if the shrinking of the Great Lakes is simply seasonal, or a direct result of climate change42. The final report of the study is expected to be finished by March 2012. Since there is less ice covering the Lakes in wintertime, more water evaporates at this time. As of October 17th, 2007, Lake Ontario stood 1 ft. below its recorded average in 2006. The problem is worse in Lake Michigan and Huron, where some are lobbying for flow inhibitors to be placed in the two Lakes. Though flow inhibitors would temporarily fix low water levels in Michigan and Huron, it could cause a permanent 2 inch drop in the level of Lake St. Clair43. Lower lake levels have a direct effect on the shipping industry, because they force ships to reduce their cargo in order to maintain trim and draft. To maintain viable profitability, shipping price increases are necessary. Extra pollution is created because more trips are needed to carry the same amount of cargo. Low water levels in Lake Ontario have the potential to be a serious problem, but if they reach the intensity of Lake Michigan or Huron then water conservation may need to be taken more seriously.

Some believe that low water levels are not the cause of annual fluctuation or climate change. "Don't give me that global warming stuff. That water is going west. That big aquifer out there is empty but they can still water the desert. It's got to be coming from somewhere," says retiree Ted Sietsema44. The American Midwest suffered through severe drought conditions in 2005. In the same year, Ontario and Quebec signed an agreement with eight U.S. states that prohibits water being diverted from the Great Lakes. On average, less than 1% of Great Lakes water is renewed by precipitation each year, making them a non-renewable resource, as it potentially harmful to remove more than that 1%45. As Lakes dip dangerously close to an all-time low, fresh water is a valuable commodity. Thirst in the American Midwest’s agriculture industry must find a different way to be quenched.


Dredging - schematic.

Dredging is another feared cause of diminishing Lake levels. Mary Muter, head of the environment committee for the Georgian Bay Association, believes that 1960s dredging of the St. Clair River has made Lake Michigan-Huron more susceptible to erosion46. Erosion is not the only reason why dredging receives a bad reputation. Over time, PCBs are naturally buried by river silt and the practice of dredging stirs up these PCBs, meaning they could re contaminate the water47. Once the contaminated silt has been dredged, it cannot be dumped back into the water. The silt must go through expensive treatment to ensure it will be safely disposed of. Everything in the Great Lakes is relative. Low water levels require the shipping industry to dredge, but dredging can stir up PCBs. The only option that would end dredging is transporting goods by plane or truck, both of which cause more air pollution than shipping. Adversely, high water levels can increase the amount of clean, renewable hydroelectric power being generated in Ontario, but can be blamed for soil erosion. The environment treads a fine balance, and a tip in either direction could mean disaster.

[Review 2020]     Much of this section is now very dated – headlines and concerns are about recent high water levels, whereas this document reminds us the lake levels fluctuate, and while we have some ability to regulate the levels of Lake Ontario and Lake Superior (through flow control structures), precipitation / climate and development (urbanisation increasing runoff rates, removal of wetland and forests which are natural buffers and water retention systems, etc.) will continue to drive dynamic fluctuations in lake levels in the future.

40 [back] Barry 161.
41 [back] Barry Jones, personal interview, 09 Oct. 2007.
42 [back] Fernanda Santos, "Inch by Inch, Great Lakes Shrink and Cargo Carriers Face Loss," New York Times 22 Oct. 2007. 03 Nov. 2007. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/22/nyregion/22oswego.html>.
43 [back] Tina Lam, "Michigan leaders push U.S. for fix in St. Clair River," Detroit Free Press 28 Oct. 2007. 03 Nov. 2007 <http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071028/NEWS05/710280611/1001>. [dead link, July 2020]
44 [back] John Flesher, "The mystery of Lake Superior’s low levels, surging temperatures," Globe and Mail 28 Jul. 2007. 04 Nov. 2007 <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/
>. [dead link, July 2020]
45 [back] "Protection of the Water of the Great Lakes," International Joint Commission 10 Aug. 1999. 04 Nov. 2007. <http://www.ijc.org/php/publications/html/finalreport.html>. [dead link, July 2020]
46 [back] Martin Mittelstaedt, "the Great Lakes disappearing act," Lake Ontario Waterkeeper 24 Sep. 2007. 04 Nov. 2007
<http://www.waterkeeper.ca/content/swim/the_great_lakes_disappearing_a.php>. [dead link, July 2020]

* [back] - This project was developed by Isabel Slone (one of the Society's 2007 "summer students") and was in part funded with a grant from Young Canada Works, in part with a grant from the Municipality of the County of Prince Edward, and in part with this Society's research funds.