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A River’s Message:

Falling water, fish levels demand government action

August 7, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Jerry Dennis
  Sharply lower water levels frequently affect fish populations and reduce the amount of local economic activity that anglers can generate.

The St. Joseph River rises from Baw Beese Lake and meanders 210 miles across Michigan and Indiana to Lake Michigan. Along its way to the sixth largest freshwater lake in the world, the St. Joe nourishes farms, towns, and the fish and wildlife that bring outdoor enthusiasts to its banks and to many nearby businesses.

Today this river, like the lakes, underground water, and other streams cycling through the Great Lakes ecosystem, faces many 21st-century challenges. Ongoing drought, urbanization, population growth, and unsupervised and ever-increasing water withdrawals are some of the trends harming the natural characteristics and productivity of the St. Joe watershed. Such problems can erode the region’s economy, culture, and quality of life.

Less Water, Less Fish, Less Economic Activity
The St. Joe’s two most critical problems are strongly interrelated: Falling water levels and plummeting fish populations. One reason the river is down is the drought conditions Indiana has experienced since 1986. But federal research shows that groundwater levels in the St. Joe River basin did not begin declining steadily until 1996.

This is the result of another, subtler trend: Increased pumping from wells in the St. Joe River basin to meet growing residential, commercial, and agricultural demands. Together with surface water withdrawals, the pumping reduces the amount of water that enters the river, maintains its water level, and recharges the Great Lakes.

Recent declines in the river’s fish population among species dependent on the strong currents and cold waters that high waters bring have been dramatic. An average of 10,000 fish swim up the St. Joseph River system to spawn each autumn. But a mere 2,000 made the run in 2002. It was the worst fishing year in recent times and local business owners paid the price.

“We get a lot of publicity in Field and Stream and other big sporting magazines,” Dick Parker, owner of Parker’s Tackle, told WNDU television news in South Bend. “The word’s out that there’s no fish here. Sales are down.”

Anglers contribute approximately $2.75 million annually to the local economy. But the economic threat goes beyond sports shops. Low water levels can threaten other outdoor recreational activities, as well as the region’s homes and farms.

Wanted: A Water-Saving Policy

Map courtesy of USGS, WRI Report 00-4008
  High-volume groundwater pumping alters the flow of groundwater. Depending on where it occurs, this pumping can affect nearby lakes, streams, wetlands, or ponds. This diagram shows it affecting a nearby lake. Click to enlarge
The St. Joe watershed, including its groundwater, relies solely on rain and snow for replenishment. Precipitation seeps into the subsurface and migrates through porous layers of rock, sand, and gravel known as aquifers. These aquifers, when well charged, sustain wetlands and forests in times of drought and also interconnect and sustain an elaborate web of lakes, rivers, and other natural habitats.

The region’s leaders understand the economic and ecological value of freshwater resources. But they continue to lack basic strategies or governmental tools to manage large withdrawals. Both Michigan and Indiana, in fact, typically permit any new water project, regardless of its size, drought conditions, or potential risk to nearby well owners, streams, or ponds.

This is why the region urgently needs a modern water policy with clear standards for withdrawals, efficient water use, and freshwater quality improvement. Without such a comprehensive policy, the region’s economy and ecology remain at risk.     

Conserve, Protect, Improve
In June 2001, the governors of Michigan and Indiana joined with the other Great Lakes governors and premiers to begin the necessary task of greatly improving their joint stewardship of the waters that unite them. They signed the Great Lakes Charter Annex, a commitment to guiding the water use decisions of each individual state and Canadian province toward a crucial, common goal: Protecting and enhancing Great Lakes waters, including local water supplies and the lakes, rivers, and aquifers that make up the freshwater ecosystem.

At the time of the signing, the commitment of the region’s leaders seemed clear. “The economy of the Great Lakes region was built on the availability of water,” said Pennsylvania’s then-Governor Tom Ridge. “We cannot take for granted that the availability of water for our citizens is limitless and that we will always be able to drink clean water as well as swim and fish. This is dependent upon our taking action now to protect this precious natural resource.”

But today, despite growing concerns about the global water supply and broad public support for managing water withdrawals, the visionary principles of the Annex remain non-binding.

Michigan, Indiana, and other Great Lakes governments must absorb the agreement’s modern water-use principles — conservation, do no harm, and improvement — into local law, make them legally enforceable, and ensure that public assets such as the St. Joseph watershed remain brimming with clean water and robust fish populations for the enjoyment of future generations. Leaders have committed to doing so by June 2004.

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