Field Notes: The Forgotten Great Lake

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Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

MONTREAL— Along the eastern shore of this island city, the water of the St. Lawrence River runs deep, clear, and fast. Montreal is more than 1,500 kilometers (1,000 miles) from the westernmost reaches of Lake Superior, but the river here feels undeniably of the Great Lakes, of the northlands, of a system so vast that it holds a fifth of the world’s fresh surface water.

I grew up a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan, drove many times across the green expanse of the Mackinac Bridge, passed the southern shore of Lake Erie every fall on my way to college, and ate my childhood breakfasts across from a large photograph of Niagara Falls. But, beyond a thin blue line on a map, I never imagined where much of that water eventually goes.

Certainly, I never pictured the St. Lawrence River as a waterway big enough to hold islands, cities, and strings of container ships so massive they make luxury yachts look like bathtub toys. In fact, 318 billion cubic meters of water (11.2 trillion cubic feet) flow down the St. Lawrence in an average year. Of the rivers in North America, only the Mississippi and the Mackenzie send more water to the sea.

I spent the last week traveling the river’s upper reaches and along the southern shore of Lake Ontario, where the system is on the edge of a dynamic change. Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River are the only portion of the Great Lakes where humans play a significant role in water-level regulation, but for the past 50 years those regulations have done little to take the upper river’s wetlands and fisheries into account. Last year, the international body that oversees waterways shared by Canada and the United States proposed a new regulation plan, Plan 2014, that would reintroduce the environment as a primary stakeholder—a move both supporters and critics say will create winners and losers.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.