Climate change impacting Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River

The Baie Comeau, a Trillium Class self-unloading laker owned by the Canada Steamship Lines, makes its way through the Eisenhower Lock north of Massena on the St. Lawrence Seaway in May. (Enterprise photo — Andy Flynn)

CANTON — $2 billion — that is how much communities on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River are planning to spend over the coming years to repair damages from flooding and erosion events in the recent past.

That figure is in addition to $1 billion that has already been spent and only covers government expenditures to repair public property. The number is likely much higher when counting damage to private property.

The data comes from a survey of cities and towns across the region conducted by the Great Lakes and St Lawrence Cities Initiative.

Executive Director Jon Altenberg spoke with Ryan Finnerty about what communities in New York and across the region are facing. Their conversation was lightly edited for clarity and time.

Altenberg: New York communities are planning to spend about $101 million over the next five years. But that’s only public property or municipal property. That doesn’t include private property, both residential and commercial property. And it (does not include) all of the cities that are across the corridor of the lakes and the St. Lawrence River.

The approximate spend was 36 million U.S. dollars over the last two years in New York. But overall, throughout the lakes, we’re looking at $2 billion worth of expected expenditures over the next five years. Already close to a billion dollars has been spent. So you can assume that this number is much higher.

Finnerty: What is that money being spent on?

Altenberg: Everything from damage to piers for commercial purposes, to disappearing, shoreline where there are beaches, to erosion and damage to city property, parks, etc. There are issues for water intake tanks, among many cities, where the erosion is causing damage into those intake tanks, which are threatening some city’s water supplies.

It’s a pretty severe situation. And across the lakes, the question is the buildings that are near the lakes, are they going to see erosion problems? And I’m not assuming because they don’t have the information from Miami yet, but will we see similar situations because of erosion on our lakes with damages buildings.

Finnerty: On the Great Lakes, there’s a lot of very small communities that aren’t necessarily equipped, financially or technically, to handle some of these challenges. What do these cities, big and small, but particularly smaller, more rural communities need to address some of these challenges?

Altenberg: Just under a quarter of the cities that responded actually have planning to deal with this type of situation. These cities don’t have the technology, they don’t have the employees that have the experience and the knowledge to address these issues. They don’t even have staff to even apply for some of these grants that are under federal and state level.

So we as an organization are starting to interact with those smaller to medium sized communities to help them do that. But there has to be also regional planning and we need better data right now. We know in general, what global warming, or climate change is doing to the Great Lakes, but we don’t have forecasting over the next 30 to 50 years of what we can expect.

So some of that money is going to have to go towards research to be able to project things. But you also need to think about with small communities, there’s a non-federal match requirement, typically, with federal funds. So we’re asking the federal government to not impose 25% non-federal funding matches. The cities simply can’t afford it. Our request is that they try to keep it under 5%.

You know, when you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of damage, like in Chicago, that’s a major chunk of funding that has to come up from our cities. Think about that impact on a small community. It’s huge. It just leads to problems occurring and inability to address these problems.

Finnerty: When it comes to damage you’ve been discussing, is it mostly coming from major kind of high profile events like storms or floods? Or is it more of a slow drip of fluctuation and erosion and just kind of instability that’s causing most of the damage?

Altenberg: It’s both unfortunately, flooding and storms are causing the erosion rate to increase. But in general, high water, even when there’s low water in the lakes, is causing erosion instability of Lake Shore. So it’s a multiple set of problems that are causing this issue.

I think it’s the responsibility of citizens that are along these coastlines, and even not along these coastlines, to really ask their members of Congress and their state legislators to address this problem. It’s not going away. It’s just going to get worse.

Finnerty: A lot of coastal cities are having this debate about whether to harden infrastructure that’s near the shoreline or to retreat and move it back. Is that a debate that’s being had along the Great Lakes coast as well?

Altenberg: Yes, that debate is going on and hardening only does so much. You have to look at also green solutions to stop the erosion. But I would say zoning issues do come into play. I know up in Quebec City, that they did some rezoning and relocations of some communities as a result.

So that debate continues. No one likes, especially in private residences, to lose their lakefront property, right? The same thing for a municipality. The beauty of the Great Lakes doesn’t want to be lost. But that debate does continue.

Finnerty: And we always hear whenever there’s a major weather event, whether it’s a flood or a wildfire or hurricane, that it’s very hard to tie climate change to any one specific event. But the general consensus is that climate change is making the events more severe and more frequent. What is the role as best we know, of climate change in some of these coastal issues for Great Lakes communities?

Altenberg: Well, on average, the lakes are up 15 feet from standard levels. We see also that storms are becoming more frequent. 100 year storms are becoming 5 year storms. Every couple of years you’re getting them. You’re seeing the temperatures of the lakes could go up 3 to 4 degrees Celsius, along with the [air] temperatures in our area.

I don’t know if you saw the Harvard University’s study that showed the Duluth, Minnesota is going to become the ideal place to live in the next 50 years. That’s because the temperatures are going to moderate. The lakes will keep things cooler, and also warmer in the winter.

But think about that. That’s a that’s a big statement. Duluth is a beautiful city, but it gets cold in the winter. It’s not necessarily Miami. But the fact of where they’re expecting climate change to impact, we’re going to see not only damages on the Great Lakes, we’re going to see shifting in populations. The possibility of populations coming in are going to have to put strain on to municipalities.

I think there’s probably no way to deny that climate change is having a role here. There’s just too much going on. And these bigger storms are happening much more frequently. It’s not just the Great Lakes area, you look at the incredible droughts that have been occurring on the west coast, the heat in the west and east coast, the tremendous flooding in Asia. I think it’s hard to deny anymore that climate change is impacting our society.

Finnerty: You mentioned the droughts on the west coast, the western U.S. Has this multi-year drought revived calls to pipe Great Lakes water to the Western U.S. and to Western cities where reservoirs are being depleted and they are undergoing this drought? Is that something that’s being discussed again?

Altenberg: Well, there’s a great lakes compact that requires that the water not be pumped outside of the basin. While I haven’t heard recent discussions about fresh water being pumped out and that great deal like we transport oil, one could assume if this continues to happen, that there will be discussions, which will again impact the Great Lakes. So I would assume that kind of discussion can happen again.


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