Should we plug the hole in the St. Clair River?

Two years ago when I started working on the issue of Great Lakes water loss I went to a meeting in Canada. When crossing the border, much to my surprise, the border guard asked me, “Are you going to plug the hole in the St. Clair River?”

I had been reading for months how lake levels in Lakes Michigan and Huron were declining due to a “hole” in the St. Clair River, an artery of the Great Lakes system carrying water from Lakes Michigan and Huron into Lake Erie and onward. This “hole” was created from years of pulling gravel from the stream bed in order to make space for big ships. Even worse, more water level declines are likely expected due to climate change. And as these water levels decline shoreline habitats in Lakes Michigan and Huron have the potential to dry out and cause impacts to the wildlife such as turtles, frogs and birds that depend on them. “Plugging the hole” or restoring the stream bed to natural levels could help keep lake levels where they need to be for wildlife.

Considering these facts a resounding “yes, that’s the plan” came from this bright-eyed planet saver.

But it’s not that simple.

Meet my new fish friend, the northern madtom – a globally rare endangered species in the St. Clair River. To the knowledge of wildlife managers madtoms are not found in any other part of the Great Lakes.

Photo Credit Ken-ichi Ueda

This little fish enjoys deep swift riffles of large rivers. The St. Clair River is quite habitable for them.

Options proposed at a meeting today by the International Upper Great Lakes Study Board, as a potential way to “plug the hole” would require movement of or blocks placed on the river bottom. Options which might be good for wildlife upstream in Lakes Michigan and Huron. Options that might disrupt or even change northern madtom habitat in the St. Clair River.

The long-term impacts to the madtom are unclear.

So what to do? This is a good example of environmental trade-offs. Saving some species has the potential to make it more difficult for others.

As people who care about wildlife it is important to stay informed on these issues and attend public meetings whenever possible. I urge you to follow the International Upper Great Lakes Study. These bi-national studies do not happen often and have the potential to lead to major changes. Learn for yourself about Great Lakes water loss issues and voice your opinion.