The Lake View: CMSP in the Great Lakes

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Eric Vogelbacher is the Chief of the Resources and Planning Division for the Ninth Coast Guard District, where he is tasked with coordinating the Great Lakes Regional efforts for coastal and marine spatial planning.

The Great Lakes, like the ocean, can deceive you. With water and waves as far as you can see, the Great Lakes give you a feeling of vastness and a false sense that they can take care of every need and use. The reality is that our Great Lakes, like the oceans, although enormous, are actually finite, and the activities that happen here are quickly filling this space. As existing uses grow and new uses emerge, careful coastal planning is the key to managing and mitigating conflicts over uses and space. I’m happy to share a brief update on some of our challenges that I believe tools like CMSP will help us solve.

Shipping and Ports

The Great Lakes maritime transportation system is a key driver for both the U.S. and Canadian economies, delivering more than 200 million tons of cargo each year through more than 65 ports. Much of the commerce stays within the Lakes, but we are connected to the Atlantic via the St. Lawrence Seaway. Most of the ships carry bulk cargo, but regular, containerized service between Cleveland and Antwerp, Belgium started in April 2014, and is set to increase.

While good, this transportation system is dated and planners are evaluating the future of this system, which could result in modernization, expansion of existing facilities, or even more radical changes. Integrated decision-making will be needed to account for wetlands and other habitats that modernization could put at risk. The CMSP process could assist us to evaluate potential plans to optimize the mix of commerce, offshore energy production, recreational boating, and tourism.

Offshore Energy Production

While common in Europe, offshore wind and hydrokinetic turbines have not quite arrived in the Great Lakes region, which has one-third of the U.S.’s offshore wind energy potential. Future projects will have to consider shipping lanes, fishing areas, recreational boating areas, and even traditional race courses for sailing regattas. For instance, there are two longstanding annual races to Mackinaw Island that need to be considered, one from Chicago (started in 1898) and another from Port Huron, with hundreds of sailboats zigzagging 300 nautical miles back and forth across Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, respectively.

Placement of fixed or floating energy platforms must consider view sheds, especially if there are sacred tribal areas that should be preserved for cultural purposes. Interestingly, some communities embrace wind turbines and want them close at hand. Copenhagen, Denmark, placed offshore wind turbines close to its shore in a distinctive arc, deliberately providing the city with a distinctive view and image. In contrast, an 18 megawatt demonstration project is to be sited far enough off Cleveland so that it can barely be seen from land.

In addition to the view shed, the project team used the State of Ohio’s Coastal Atlas to find the best location for producing wind energy, while staying within an acceptable depth while also avoiding shipping and boating traffic. Other States have created wind power siting models and Illinois has passed legislation requiring the designation of wind energy areas in their portion of Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes region also has four approved preliminary permits for large scale hydrokinetic turbine developments, slated for sites with consistently strong currents. These turbines will have to be located far enough beneath the surface to provide clearance for surface vessels, or located in no-traffic areas.

Natural and Cultural Resources

Significant cultural or natural treasures can be protected by creating designated conservation or protected areas. On the Great Lakes, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary was recently expanded to 4,300 square miles to protect numerous historic shipwrecks that date back as much as 150 years. Special management areas can be carefully tailored, and the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary prohibits only those activities that would disturb or damage the shipwrecks. A similar sanctuary is being proposed for an area in Lake Michigan.

In other cases, management areas may protect submerged tribal villages, unique underwater geology, sensitive habitat, or areas off-limits to fishing. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been successful in cleaning up areas polluted by waste (mostly) from the industrial era. As projects are completed and habitat is restored, thought should be given to determining the best way to protect and sustain the vitality of those areas well into the future.

Water Quality

Activities in the watershed create additional marine planning challenges as they can have a significant impact on the lakes themselves. Water quality has long been an emphasis for the Great Lakes region. In July 2014, agricultural practices inland led to an episode of toxic water, off of Toledo, Ohio. This brought water quality to everyone’s attention, as the city of Toledo’s water supply was infiltrated. The people of Toledo had to switch to bottled water for months. There are countless dams in the region that are either failing structurally, with no funds available for repair, or are filling up with silt, a situation that is uneconomical to dredge. Removal of the dams would open up additional spawning grounds for indigenous fish, but is prohibited in many cases since it would also expand the range of a number of invasive species. Like many coastal areas, the Great Lakes needs to work with its upstream and downstream neighbors to ensure the water entering and leaving the Lakes is clean and healthy.

The Lake Ahead

The Great Lakes face a number of challenges—some similar, and others unique, than our saltier counterparts. The conflicts and potential conflicts we face in the Great Lakes would all benefit from more integrated planning in the region. We realize that conflict can’t be avoided, but it can be managed. We’ve also proven through some long-term collaborations that those responsible for the health of the Great Lakes can work together for better outcomes. CMSP offers a proven process with a number of tools and methods to help the Great Lakes achieve the best balance for our unique uses, resources, and culture.