Mud, muck and rocks where lake water once rippled. Tall reeds so dense that turtles and birds die trying to make their way out of the vegetation.
These are some of the effects of lower water levels in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Region, and if the trend continues, residential property values in Ontario municipalities near the shores could take a hit worth $976-million by 2050, according to a new Mowat Centre study to be released Thursday.
Lake Huron is expected to be by far the hardest hit of the lakes, with property values there predicted to decline by some $612-million alone.
The report, entitled Low Water Blues and conducted for the Council of the Great Lakes Region, warns that if water levels in the area remain near the low end of the historic range for sustained periods, the long-term economic impact across various sectors could total $18.82-billion by 2050.
"This is the first report of its kind in terms of trying to put [economic] numbers to some of the impacts that might arise as a result of low and varying water levels," said council head Mark Fisher. "They're important numbers – they're big, and they'd be even bigger if we had better data sets regarding the Great Lakes."
Since the late-1990s, much of the region has seen the longest extended period of lower water levels since cross-border measurement started nearly a century ago. The report concedes that there is much debate about the cause and potential persistence of lower water levels in the basin, but cites research predicting that evaporation will outpace precipitation.
For some homeowners, this will mean restricted access to their properties or beaches. For others, it will mean spending thousands of dollars extending a dock to algae-infested waters that once lapped much clearer, much closer to home.
For some – namely those on Lake Michigan-Huron, where water levels in early 2013 hit a record low – the troubles are already a reality.
And aside from being an iconic place – associated with the works of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven artists, for example – the region accounts for 28 per cent of combined Canadian and U.S. economic activity, the report says.
From marinas spending more on maintenance to deal with shallower slips to commercial ships facing decreased carrying capacities, lower water levels could wreak havoc on five sectors the report deemed most vulnerable: recreational boating and fishing; commercial shipping and harbours; hydroelectric generation; rural groundwater; and waterfront properties.
"Cottagers' conversations have now evolved into talking about the impacts of climate change, and what we can do to help provide resiliency to the lake," said David Sweetnam, an avid boater and the head of environmental charity Georgian Bay Forever.
The Mowat Centre and the council are preparing another report, this time for Natural Resources Canada, that will examine various strategies to deal with lower water levels in the basin.
A spokesman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the government has invested significantly in improving Great Lakes water quality, noting that the recently launched $252-million National Conservation Plan includes money to conserve and restore the lakes.