Last year’s record deluges along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River pitted nations, communities and people apart over water management. Now, rising water levels are raising fears of what’s coming this spring. Les Perreaux explores what happened last year and what could happen next


It was in the dead of winter one year ago that Rick Blanchard, a waterfront property owner on Lake St. Lawrence—a small dam reservoir between Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River—noticed the water and ice outside his beachfront window was more than a metre higher than usual. The level downstream past the dam, he noted, was a bit lower than average. Mr. Blanchard made note of it on a sleepy water management Facebook page where he was one of about five people active in the winter months.

Wouldn’t it make sense, Mr. Blanchard asked, to release more lake water into the St. Lawrence River before the unpredictable start of spring? No, the water management board’s social media person answered. Slow water flow was needed to keep ice from breaking up, jamming and triggering a flood. Plus, new marching orders to regulate levels and flow just came into effect from a bilateral agency that regulates bodies of water along the Canada-U.S. border. Discretionary changes were not allowed until “extreme conditions” arrived.

Things got extreme. In the spring, constant record-breaking rainfall, rapid snow melt and high water levels on the other Great Lakes would flood hundreds of private properties and public infrastructure around Lake Ontario. That water would combine with the raging Ottawa River to cause far greater devastation in Quebec, where 5,371 homes were flooded.

Nine months later, the total damage still has yet to be tallied. The Quebec government held a forum just before Christmas where mayors and flood victims complained of slow inspections, lagging decisions and the slow flow of compensation. Provincial disaster relief and insurance claims are expected to cost more than half-a-billion dollars in Quebec alone.

The controversy over water management and the record floods of 2017 pitted the interests of Americans against Canadians, experts against politicians, and property owners against each other, not to mention shipping companies and shoreline wildlife. This winter, with water levels persistently higher than average, shoreline residents are looking warily to spring and the uncertainty that comes with every spring melt and rain season.

Last winter, Mr. Blanchard’s reasonable and polite question was the first of hundreds that would follow from enraged, flooded property owners—particularly Americans whose waterfront Lake Ontario properties were underwater or eroding away with every windblown wave. Many demanded the flood gates be open even though entire neighbourhoods downstream in Canada were underwater, discounting the fact every centimetre of water level released from Lake Ontario would push the St. Lawrence River 10 centimetres higher.

Mr. Blanchard, a boating enthusiast, is retired and lives with his wife Helen just upstream from the lone dam near Cornwall, Ont., that controls some of the water flowing from Lake Ontario into the St. Lawrence River. The International Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Board uses the Moses-Saunders dam to try to balance interests of waterfront property owners, shipping companies, pleasure boaters, municipal and industrial water users, power companies and wetlands.

“A lot of people think just about themselves. It’s human nature, I guess,” said Mr. Blanchard, a Canadian who admitted he, too, was looking after his own interests last winter as he worried about the sand on his beach washing away.

To counteract local self-interest, Canada and the United States created the International Joint Commission (IJC) in 1909, an independent agency to regulate shared water bodies and settle disputes, along with the board that manages Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence.

The board consists mainly of scientists from the Canadian government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with other appointees. Year round, they meet weekly to decide how much water to let through the dam.

For some people, especially in the United States, the blame for last year’s floods landed on the IJC, the board and a new set of rules they created called Plan 2014 (which actually launched Jan. 1, 2017).

The new plan updated 54-year-old regulations and is designed to allow more variation in water levels to improve the health of wetlands. Several species of turtle, for example, are threatened if water can’t fluctuate to create marshes and sandbars. The IJC says the plan will also boost hydro-electricity generation, maintain better levels for navigation and extend the recreational boating season. Water managers are allowed to veer from the plan to deal with emergency situations like last year’s flooding, but still many blamed Plan 2014 for setting the stage for flood.

When Mr. Blanchard questioned water levels last February, flooding wasn’t on the horizon. Rain, snowfall and inflows from the other Great Lakes were normal. The Moses-Saunders dam was allowing 7,300 cubic metres per second through – just slightly more than the usual flow in recent years.

Over the next 60 days, rain all around Lake Ontario would wash out records. Water rose rapidly on the Great Lakes and also the Ottawa River – the river that streams along the border of Ontario and Quebec and flows into the St. Lawrence just west of Montreal. This area would be the epicentre of the Quebec flood zone. Desperate to help contain flooding, the board cut back the flow of Lake Ontario water on May 8 to 6,200 cubic metres per second.

The Toronto Islands and the New York shore of Lake Ontario then flooded with high waters that persisted into August. The gates on the Moses-Saunders dam were opened steadily as the floods receded in Quebec. By Aug. 8, the dam allowed through 10,400 cubic metres per second, the highest volume ever and nearly twice the average flow of the three cascades that make up Niagara Falls.

For comparison, flow at the dam never surpassed 8,600 cubic metres per second in 2016.

In the U.S., experts weighed in: Spring rainfall and water levels on other Great Lakes broke records and made flooding unavoidable. “These waters have humiliated officials who have tried to harness and manipulate them for hundreds of years,” said Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars and [co-director of the Northland College Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation]. “In years like this there’s not much people can do no matter what plan is in effect. Relief for one community harms another community.

“There are no simple solutions.” To read the rest of the article.

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