On Russia Monday, Let’s Talk About Lake Superior Water Levels

Image result for soo st marie

Let’s talk about sort of nice things today, ok? 

As I write, a former game show host is meeting with a ruthless KGB spy in private, which is fine, I guess, and maybe even the plotline of an offbeat movie, like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, except in this case the failed steak pitchman is actually the President of the United States and no one can tell anyone why they need a private 90 minute meeting.

My thoughts on whether Donald Trump is a compromised asset have been made clear before, and they are: maybe? We won’t be learning too much today. Trump’ll say he asked about extraditing, and Putin said they weren’t guilty, and anyway it is a witch hunt, etc. There’ll probably be a compromise over something, Ukraine will be sold out, and the admin will declare a victory. That’s sort of their whole game, since the heart of Trumpism is that America is a terrible shitty stupid country unless he’s the one doing things.


We’ll have a lot more on this as the week goes on, but I’d rather point out a really cool article about the way the world works outside of summits and circumstance, outside of fools and liars and rich thieves in luxury jets. It’s about the inexorability of water, about the women and men who work to balance our place in the natural world, and the inevitable tradeoffs that come from living on a planet whose continued existence is not in any way dependent on our survival.

I’m generally loath of link to the Chicago Tribune, since its management seems determined to destroy journalism in this city, but it still has some damn fine reporters, and their work should be highlighted.

What happens when Lake Superior has too much water? It dumps it into an already overflowing Lake Michigan“, by Tony Briscoe, is such a piece. It’s a long, well-reported, in-depth look at the balances and compromises that come with trying to maintain and control the vastness of the Great Lakes, these ancient giants that can dominate the weather on a continent. And the result? Not easy.

For nearly a century, a dam at the head of the St. Marys River near Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., has been used like a faucet, controlling the amount of water flowing from Lake Superior into lakes Michigan and Huron.

In the past five years, following a swift rise in lake levels, the relatively obscure Lake Superior board that regulates the amount of water released has stepped up these discharges, raising an outcry from a group representing property owners along the shoreline of Lake Michigan and potentially harming seasonal tourism.

U.S. officials say the elevated discharges aren’t simply an attempt to drive down Lake Superior’s levels, highlighting the need to accommodate hydropower plants, downstream fish-spawning habitat and commercial shipping.

As someone who spends not a little time wandering the southern shores of Lake Michigan, I can confirm that the water seems unusually high, and can provide on-the-ground analysis of whether or not, as the article claims, the Evanston dog beach is missing (Answer: yes).

Briscoe’s article points out that there are obviously other factors, but the sheer enormity of Lake Superior water is enough to raise the levels of both Michigan and Huron. So who controls this? People you have probably never heard of. I’ve never heard of them, that’s for sure.

The St. Marys River runs between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Ontario, passing through a network of canals, hydropower plants and a dam with 16 steel control gates, which are regulated by the Lake Superior control board, a binational entity that determines how much water is released into the rapids. The board assumes the daunting responsibility of balancing the socio-economic and environmental interests of Lake Superior with those of lakes Michigan and Huron, which are considered one body of water because they are connected at the Straits of Mackinac.

First off, I want to express anger at Tony Briscoe for including that last clause about them being, hydrologically and geologically, one lake. That’s one of my favorite bits of “actually…” trivia. You should watch me when I tell people this. Their minds are blown with the quiet resignation that I am, in fact, going to keep talking about this. It’s awesome. But I guess I’m grateful this is in here.

But back to the Lake Superior control board, which is where bureaucracy meets nature. The Board, such as it is, consists of two people, and American from the Army Corp of Engineers and a Canadian with similar credentials. They have small staffs that analyze regulations, but it is really way more than that. These aren’t just recitations of a rule book. It’s an attempt to harness almost unfathomable power and weight into something manageable.

To me, this is nearly heroic. Laboring in essential anonymity, they look to balance the interests not just of two countries, but of a half-dozen states and two provinces. And in each of those areas, there is a complex web of commercial and recreational (not to mention environmental) interests, which compete not just with each other, but also amongst each other. Industry and commercial fishing, for instance, rarely go hand-in-hand.

It is an unenviable position, and Briscoe’s article goes admirably in-depth about what the interests are and the near-impossibility of finding a balance. Honestly, I don’t think there is one. I don’t think there can be, even with the best intentions and hard work and intelligence of smart and dedicated people.

The Lakes exist on scales we can hardly imagine. They are not as inhuman as the ocean, but they still are too vast and too old and too deep and cold and tempestuous and unpredictable and unconcerned to be truly managed. They can pluck a person from life in the blink of an eye, with a rolling, erasing wave or the freezing downward pull of 10,000 winters.

We’ve set up so much of our society around these Lakes, the heart of the industrial Midwest, with the idea that they could be tamed. We’ve done the same everywhere on this and every other continent. And to an extent, it has worked. It’s a testament to human ingenuity and brilliance that we can control the levels of water in the Lake Superior, and put what is basically a tap on this continent-defining freshwater system. To the engineers go all the glory.

At the end of the day though, we have to learn to live alongside the Lakes, and not dominate them. That’s impossible. The Lakes will submerge our dog parks and laugh while doing so. They’ll remind us that we aren’t in control. And I think that’s a damn good lesson. It’s good to see the eternal. It’s good to see that what seems outsized and omnipresent is still small and weak.

When walking along on a sunrise when things are seeming to spiral out of control, and the world is going off the rails, it’s nice to see the endless rolling waves, slapping unconcerned and eternal on temporary shores, trod by temporary feet.


2 thoughts on “On Russia Monday, Let’s Talk About Lake Superior Water Levels

  1. I had to research the photo to know that that’s of the locks that empty from Superior to the lower lakes. Awesome writing!

  2. Pingback: Standing Rock Protestors and Enbridge Line 5: Water is Sacred, Even For Doofus Secular Modernists – Shooting Irrelevance

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