CLAYTON — The Great Lakes average water levels can vary widely between seasons and years, but the trends that impact those levels are still not as well understood as experts wish they were.
That’s according to Drew Gronewold, a doctor of environmental science who studies water levels in the Great Lakes with the University of Michigan.
As part of his decade-long information sharing mission, Mr. Gronewold visited the Clayton Opera House on Thursday afternoon to hold a seminar explaining to local residents the myriad of variables that impact the water levels along the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. The event was co-sponsored by Save the River, the environmental group dedicated to protecting the St. Lawrence.
“The main objective is to ensure that people who interact with the river and the lakes have a clear understanding of what drives the variability and water levels on a seasonal and long-term timescale,” Mr. Gronewold said in an interview before the presentation.
He said there are three main takeaways he wants people to focus on. Firstly, that the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River are part of the largest freshwater systems on the planet. The water bodies hold about 21% of the planets unfrozen surface freshwater supply.
“I’m pretty convinced that not everybody throughout the region thinks about that,” he said.
Secondly, Mr. Gronewold said it’s important to note that the variables driving the water levels in the lakes and river are not all local forces.
“If you live on Lake Ontario, you think of the Lake Ontario watershed, snow melt in the spring and rain accumulation, but in reality the moisture and rainfall that come into the Great Lakes basin are often from the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean.”
He said there are massive continental air circulation patterns that bring moisture and rainfall into the region, which feeds into his third major point — forecasting the patterns that impact the water levels for the lakes is incredibly difficult.
“It’s truly one of the biggest challenges in scientific research, and it’s an area that needs continued advancing,” he said.
In previous presentations, including in Clayton last year, Mr. Gronewold has said one of the major things that needs to happen is the U.S. and Canada need to coordinate binational weather monitoring efforts across the entire Great Lakes system, which they currently don’t do.
He said, as he’s toured the region for the last decade, and most of the time that message has been well received and necessary. He said there seem to be common misconceptions about the level of control humans have over the average water levels in any one area of the lake and river region.
Mr. Gronewold said it’s integral that science develop a better understanding of the forces impacting water levels for the future security of the entire region.
“For one, 30 million people live within the Great Lakes basin on the U.S. and Canadian sides,” he said. “The majority of those people rely on the Great Lakes in one way or another, whether it’s for drinking water, recreation, commerce, industry.”
Beyond that, Mr. Gronewold said, as fresh water gets harder to come by in many regions of the world, an understanding of how best to protect and maximize the supply in the Great Lakes region will become even more important.
“If we don’t have a good understanding of Great Lakes water quantity and quality, it’s going to be tough over the next 20 to 30 years for this region to prosper,” he said.