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High tensions over low water levels in St. Lawrence River

By Shawna O'Neill

Published on September 12, 2018

Jeff Gillard, a local resident and fisherman, voiced his feelings and concerns like many others at the public meeting . (Shawna O'Neill/TC Media).

LONG SAULT, Ontario – South Stormont Township Hall was filled to the brim on Tuesday, Sept. 11 with approximately 150 citizens seeking answers about the low water levels in the St. Lawrence River. 

The meeting between the public, the International Lake Ontario - St. Lawrence River Board and the International Joint Commission (IJC) heard pleas from local fisherman, environmentalists, boaters, parks representatives, tourism officials and business owners alike. The meeting started at 7 p.m. and continued past 9:30 p.m.

Jamie Dicout, Regulations Representative from the IJC, commenced the meeting with a presentation detailing the process of maintaining and projecting inflows and outflows of the river under the recently implemented Plan 2014. Dicout said that in most years under this plan, water levels in the St. Lawrence River would have remained higher.

She explained that local water levels in the river have not been this low since 1998 but reinforced that the IJC will take resident’s concerns into account to reassess the Plan through the ongoing review process. A fellow representative from the IJC maintained that mother nature is the driving force behind the levels and that the IJC is ‘very much the junior partner’.

Attendees passionately challenged the IJC and posed critical questions about the water level maintenance process. Several audience members stepped forward to describe in detail how the water has affected them, while other attendees jumped to their feet shouting phrases like: “You’re killing everything we’ve got around here!”, “You’re not doing your job!”, “Talk is cheap!” and “Go back to what you were doing 10 years ago!”

“To achieve a 1 cm change in Lake Ontario water levels in one week requires outflows to be changed by about 320 m3 per-second,” said Dicout. “This same volume in water results in more than ten times change in water levels in critical areas of the St. Lawrence River…”

In light of this information, an attendee questioned why the IJC couldn’t raise the level in Lake Ontario by a few centimeters and consequently allow a greater local water level. The IJC maintained that this occurrence would only offer temporary relief and that they are only mandated to lower or raise the level by a maximum of 2 cm.

“In my 50 some years here on the river, the last three years have been terrible,” said Jeff Gillard, local fisherman and tackle shop owner. “There’s no reason with today’s technology that we can’t have a constant level, given one or two ft.”

Brent Summerville of the St. Lawrence Park Commission said he has never seen the water this low and stated that it is greatly affecting wildlife and ecosystems at the sanctuary.

“Something has to be done; now,” said Summerville.  

Frank Hummel, President of Moulinette Island Residence Association, asked that the IJC  schedule a review process as they claimed to allow ‘extensive public participation’ but only held periodic local meetings from 2012 to the present day. Hummel also acknowledged that residents from as far as Morrisburg and Iroquois were in attendance on Sept. 11.

The IJC proposed temporarily raising the water levels, as a one-time assistance from Oct. 5 to 7 to help boaters remove their watercraft and equipment prior to the winter.

“There’s no way we can pull all those boats out in that two-day period,” said Tim Robins, Manager of Recreation and Leisure Attractions with the St. Lawrence Parks Commission. “How do we extend that or how do we have a number of weekends we can get this work done? There’s hundreds of boaters…we certainly can’t do this work in just two days.”

After heated discussion, Rob Caldwell, Canadian Secretary Manager of IJC said, “I realize that 48 hours won’t be enough for you folks.”

Jennifer MacIsaac, community member and South Stormont Council candidate, encouraged that the IJC develop an immediate communication plan between the communities that will be affected by the water change in Oct. to further negotiate a favourable timeframe and keep the public informed.

Caldwell ensured that the IJC would be in contact with local media to keep the public informed and even provided his personal email for anyone who would like to express their concerns to him. Caldwell’s email is rob.caldwell@canada.ca.

For more information, visit International Lake Ontario St. Lawrence River Board on Facebook or www.ijc.org