Study of lake level wasn't reviewed
Written by Milwaukee Joournal-Sentinel   
Friday, 08 May 2009 12:32

A study absolving the Army Corps of Engineers for an alleged massive - and ongoing - water level drop in Lakes Michigan and Huron has not been independently peer-reviewed, despite claims to the contrary last week by the study's co-chairman.
Now members of the study's own citizen advisory panel are raising questions about the validity of a draft study that blames nature, and not the Army Corps, for the water loss in the past few decades.

Adding to the brewing controversy is the fact that the public has until July 1 to comment on the 215-page, $3.6 million study, but the scientific reports that form the basis for the study's conclusions - and presumably would form the basis of informed public comment - are not available.


Because the peer-review process has not been completed.

Last week, the study co-chairman - an Army Corps employee - told the Journal Sentinel the peer-review process had indeed been completed. He said that is why the public can trust the study's conclusion that natural erosion on the St. Clair River in recent decades caused a 4-inch loss in lake levels, in addition to 16 inches everyone agrees has been lost to previous dredging and riverbed mining on the St. Clair.

"Everything has been peer-reviewed, externally and internally," Eugene Stakhiv said.

That is not true.

While attempting to get a copy of those documents, the Journal Sentinel learned that the peer-review process is nowhere near complete. Yet the study authors went ahead and released their conclusions anyway.

Public demand to finish the study a year earlier than planned is the reason the science that drove the results of the study has not yet been released, said study spokesman John Nevin. He works for the International Joint Commission, a bi-national body that funded the study and oversees U.S. and Canadian boundary waters issues. He said the scientific reports will be available before the end of the public comment period.

"The peer review of the final reports simply could not be accommodated within (the new) schedule, so the study board decided that concurrent (peer) review with public review would be acceptable," Nevin said.

Not to some members of the study's own citizen advisory panel.

They are flabbergasted with what they're now calling a "trust-me" study - a study that promised to be "as open and transparent as possible."
"If you can't release the reports because they haven't been peer-reviewed, then you can't rely on the results of this study - in their conclusions and recommendations," said John Jackson of the conservation group Great Lakes United.

Despite absence of the promised scientific scrutiny, Nevin said it is "absolutely absurd" that someone at this point would question whether the study could be biased or incomplete.

Conservationist Jackson said such statements make a mockery of the study's promise to involve the public in its research and conclusions.
"This makes their public consultation a farce," he said. "Unless you're open to people questioning your findings, that is not public consultation. That is public relations."

Advisory panel member Alan Steinman, director of the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, said he can sympathize with the study authors who were under political pressure to expedite their work. But he agrees the science needs to be released with the conclusions.
"Right, now, it's a 'trust-me' kind of document," he said. "And I think that is a mistake, because a lot of effort was put into making sure this process was as transparent as possible - and they're not achieving it."

The study was put together by more than 100 scientists from government agencies and universities.

Study blames nature

The draft study says natural erosion is to blame for an approximate 4-inch loss of water from the lakes since the 1962 Army Corps dredging project in the St. Clair River to open the upper Great Lakes to oceangoing traffic.

That is in addition to 16 inches that the Army Corps acknowledges have been lost because of previous dredging and riverbed mining.

The new study was spawned by a previous study funded by a group of Canadian property owners that charged the Army Corps' 1962 dredging operations scraped away a durable rocky layer on the river bottom, exposing a bed of sand and silt that has been eroding ever since.

The St. Clair is the main outflow for Lakes Michigan and Huron, which are actually one body of water connected at the Straits of Mackinac. Erosion in the river is a problem for the lakes, because it means a bigger river channel, which can mean more water flushing from the lakes.

The new study acknowledges that the levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron have declined about 4 inches because of erosion since the dredging project, but it says that erosion is not ongoing. It blames an ice jam in the 1980s for scouring a deeper riverbed, but says it was a one-time deal and the river bottom has since stabilized.

The new study doesn't recommend installing a dam-like structure in the river to recapture that lost water, something many conservationists and lakeshore property owners say should at least be explored.

The St. Clair River was dredged three separate times in the last century in the name of commercial navigation. Each time - in 1920, in 1933 and in 1960 - the U.S. government authorized some sort of in-water structure to compensate for the lake-lowering effect that an expanded river channel has on the two lakes north of it.

The work was never completed.

Stakhiv noted last week that isn't necessarily a bad thing, because it would have meant a disaster for lakeside property owners during the high-water years of the mid-1980s.

He also said that because scientists on the study team now believe the St. Clair River erosion was natural and not human-caused, they will not recommend to the Joint Commission that something be done to recover the water loss with some dam-like structure. He said the commission explained to him that it can only wade into the issue if the water loss is due to human actions.

Restore water?

Some think the water loss is greater than the study acknowledges, and that the Army Corps is at least partly to blame for the problem.
But putting that issue aside, others have already asked the Joint Commission to explore solutions to restore the 16 inches of water that everybody acknowledges had been previously lost from the lakes' long-term average because of dredging and riverbed mining.

Nevin says anyone who is pushing to explore some type of control structure at this point is a "crisis monger" trying to capitalize on the low water of the last decade. That water is now on the rebound toward more normal levels.

"Ultimately, the crisis mongers will look foolish when the lakes return to normal levels, albeit at somewhat different relative levels than in the past," Nevin said in an e-mail response to the Journal Sentinel. "That's why they want action now before Mother Nature proves them wrong."
Members of the citizen advisory panel, however, say they don't want to pick a fight.

They just want to see the science.

"I don't care if they release (the science reports) a week or two weeks before the consultation period ends," said Jackson. "That's not good enough. We need 60 days after the reports are released. Those take a lot of time to go through and understand."

The plan is to close the public comment period July 1, and then send a final version of the study to the Joint Commission in the fall. Nevin said the commission will hold its own public hearings. But when asked for specifics, he acknowledged nothing has yet been formally planned or scheduled.

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