Shorelines are inundated, sandbags go up, states of emergency are declared. Such has been a common refrain this spring along Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and the various tributaries. There have been accusations that the excess water is the result of, or significantly exacerbated by, the new transborder method for controlling water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence, called Plan 2014. But is this method of regulation the culprit? In a word, no.
But is this method of regulation the culprit? In a word, no.
Canada and the United States began regulating the water levels of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River as part of the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project. This megaproject, built between 1954 and 1959, blended a deep-draught navigation system with a massive hydroelectric development. The dams and control works built as part of this project, explained in detail in my book on the subject, turned a large stretch of the international river into a lake, flooding out some 40,000 acres – and the riverine residents – on both sides of the Canada/U.S. border.
The Seaway never came close to living up to cargo predictions nor to paying for itself. Moreover, the project had many ecological ramifications, which included facilitating the passage of numerous invasive species. The method of regulating Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River was one of the negative ecological legacies. Water levels were kept within a specified and predictable range – the “method of regulation” – which was a compromise based on the needs of various competing interests: commercial shipping, hydropower production, the port of Montreal, and shoreline property owners above the binational power dam near Cornwall.
However, the process of establishing the initial method of regulation during the 1950s and 1960s was plagued by engineering errors, guesses, and partisan politics. Engineers and planners, overly reliant on giant scale models, admitted that they weren’t really sure about what they were doing. As a result, they strove to attain levels, in their own words, “as nearly as may be.” After going through several provisional methods of regulation during the construction of the Seaway, engineers arrived at method 1958-D, which compresses the water range to about 4 feet. Unfortunately, significant problems with natural water supply soon developed, since Great Lakes water levels naturally fluctuate. Thus the method of regulation 1958-DD, a tweak of its predecessor, was adopted.
It soon became apparent that uniform water levels were detrimental to the St. Lawrence ecosystem, especially coastal wetlands, littoral zones, and fish populations. Conversely, the natural variability that accompanies seasonal change is ecologically beneficial for the river and shoreline.
By the 1990s, the International Joint Commission was looking towards a new method of regulation that would result in more natural water level variations and be better for the environment. Numerous studies and public consultations followed. Interim approaches came and went. By the first decade of the 21st century, Plan 2007 had emerged. This was then refined into a regulation approach titled Plan 2014 that allows for more seasonal level variations while still preventing excessive swings.
Plan 2014 gained support from many St. Lawrence communities and environmental advocacy groups. However, Seaway administrators, shipping interests, and some shoreline owners (particularly on the south shore of Lake Ontario) were opposed. It is worth noting that complaints from Lake Ontario property owners were partially responsible for the flawed system that was installed a half century ago.
Finally, after much controversy, Plan 2014 was put into place in December 2016.
Just a few months later, property owners along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence are dealing with floods. For those who were previously opposed to Plan 2014, the new Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence method of regulation is an easy scapegoat.
But Great Lakes water levels have always fluctuated according to natural supply: precipitation, snow melt, etc. Yet we seem to easily forget this when levels are deemed too high, or too low, and we start looking for engineering solutions. It was just a few years ago when water levels were too low on Lake Huron, and to combat it the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was considering (misguidedly) the construction of riffles – essentially speed bumps for water – at the bottom of the St. Clair River. But all we had to do was wait a year or two, and levels went back in the other direction.
Granted, the historic range of Great Lakes levels fluctuations are becoming less predictable with climate change. It is clear that winter ice and record spring precipitation are causing the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence floods – the difference would have been negligible under the previous method of regulation. Natural forces are the cause of this spring’s high levels, not Plan 2014. C
The various levels of government that authorized construction in these vulnerable areas clearly need to assist those affected. But the answer isn’t building things like higher banks or control works, which tend to make things worse in the long run anyway.
We need to adapt to these huge waterbodies, rather than the other way around. That means, for example, not building close to the water, or in the floodplains of rivers and lakes. If an area gets inundated once every few decades, we shouldn’t put a home there and then complain when, sooner or later, the water inevitably rises (or falls). But we tend to have short memories. Here a little bit of historical knowledge could go a long way, especially considering the uncertainty that is resulting from changing climate patterns.
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