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Strolling along the shoreline of his home on Ault Island, about 30 minutes west of Cornwall, Ontario, Cliff Steinburg shows off the end of his dock. He says this summer there was less than a foot of water there, making it impossible to launch a boat. While the river has since stabilized, Steinburg worries about what the next year will bring to an area known for its fishing, beaches and boating.

“This region can’t go through another season like we did,” Steinburg said.

“It’s going to have a major effect on tourism. It’s going to have a major effect on all of us who live here.”

The St. Lawrence Seaway is an economic powerhouse; not only the cornerstone of local life and tourism in the many towns that overlook its shores, but a major commercial artery on which commercial shipping between Montreal and Lake Ontario relies.

But the river changes.

Cliff Steinburg, standing in his backyard on the shore of the St. Lawrence Seaway, said it was frustrating to pay a premium for waterfront property only to have the water level drop so low that boats are stuck on solid ground. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Steinburg lives in a particular section of the river known as Lake St. Lawrence. The area was flooded in the late 1950s so that commercial ships could transport their cargo further upriver and inland.

Located directly upstream of the Moses-Saunders International Hydroelectric Dam, the water level of Lake St. Lawrence drops when the dam opens, so water can flow from Lake Ontario downstream to Montreal. .

Although the area has always been vulnerable to some water level fluctuations for this reason, Steinburg said that in his two decades of living there he had never seen levels as low as they were in the summer of 2022.

According to public data from the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River CouncilLake St. Lawrence has dropped below record lows several times in recent years, in May 2020, May 2021 and July, August, September and October 2022.

What climate change means for the Great Lakes

These seesaw water levels can get worse. Engineers and scientists are warning communities around the Great Lakes to prepare for a future with more extreme water level fluctuations.

A report published this year by Natural Resources Canada warns that “climate change could affect the net water supplies” of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River over the next few decades.

“We’re likely to see higher highs and higher lows at both ends of the scale,” said Frank Seglenieks, Canadian co-secretary of the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River Board, which regulates water flow in the Moses Saunders River. Dam power.

“We have about 100 years of water level data in the Great Lakes and in the last 10 years some of the lakes have seen both their lowest levels and their highest levels in the last 10 years. years,” he said.

In a recent analysis, Seglenieks found that if the global average temperature increases by more than 2.5°C, the gap between average monthly minimum and maximum levels in Lake Ontario could increase by one meter, from about two to three meters. . These fluctuations would also affect the St. Lawrence River.

Jeff Ridal, research scientist and executive director of the River Institute in Cornwall, Ont., said the Lake St. Lawrence region could be a “canary in the coal mine.”

“That’s the reality that we have to accept…in the end, communities will have to adapt,” Ridal said.

Endangered berry raises fish concerns

Acceptance is hard to come by, especially among residents who see beloved local ecosystems changing.

Avid angler John Sliter, who is president of the Friends of Hoople Creek Society, is particularly concerned about the walleye population.

He said the Hoople Bay Basin has dried up, but it’s part of the annual spawning route for fish that swim from the St. Lawrence River upstream to Hoople Creek.

In the foreground of the photo, the exposed river bed shows dry seaweed and rocks exposed to the sun.  In the background, a canoe rests on a sandy beach.
A photo shows low water levels at the Upper Canada Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Ingleside, Ontario in the summer of 2022. The St. Lawrence Parks Commission said low water levels are preventing tourists to launch anything larger than a kayak or canoe. . (Submitted by the St. Lawrence Parks Commission)

“When I was a young kid growing up on Hoople Creek…there were thousands of fish coming up the creek to spawn,” Sliter said.

“When I came home [to the bay] last summer it was nothing more than a field. As far as you could see is dry land, and I found some remains of dead fish.”

He worries that many fish won’t come up the creek to spawn before it dries up in the spring. As for those who make it in time, Sliter says he’s seen some of their eggs rotting in the sun.

“It’s quite devastating,” he said.

Potential ecological impacts are being studied by The River Institute. Ridal said they were particularly concerned that river levels were dropping earlier and earlier in the summer.

Although research so far has not shown significant differences in fish populations, Ridal said it may take time for the data to catch up to what is a relatively new phenomenon.

An aerial image shows water rolling away from a muddy field.  In the upper right corner, there is a stream.
Drone footage shot in April 2021 shows low water levels in Hoople Bay near Ingleside, Ontario. John Sliter said he found abandoned frogs, turtles, mussels and fish in the muddy fields after the water levels dropped and the bay receded. (Submitted by Jack Sliter)

“Sacrificial lambs” in a balance exercise

Steinburg and many other residents believe it is the responsibility of the council that operates the Moses-Saunders Dam to adjust its operation to make water levels more consistent.

“I think it can be managed better, if you want my honest opinion,” said Steinburg, who is a member of the public advisory group that suggests improvements to the operation of the dam.

South Stormont Mayor Bryan McGillis agrees more needs to be done. He worries about the economic fallout in his community, not to mention the impact on home values.

“We don’t need to be the sacrificial lambs here,” he said.

“We really need our water where it is because it’s a tourist area and it’s important that people still come to this community for our businesses.”

The management plan for the Moses-Saunders hydroelectric dam – and how it can be adapted to climate change – is currently under consideration.

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While there is hope that some adjustments can be made for a future with more extreme weather, Seglenieks warned there are limits to what can be done.

“The water that enters the system is determined by Mother Nature. All we can do is change the regulatory scheme a bit to try to balance it out,” he said.

This balancing act is challenging, as releasing less water from the dam during a drought can keep water levels higher for residents upstream, this has consequences downstream.

“It could reduce the water level at the Port of Montreal so low that container ships could not enter, and it would shut down the shipping industry, which is worth billions of dollars a day,” he said. declared.

Ridal agrees that there is no easy answer.

“We need a whole range of possible ways to deal with these issues…hopefully there will be improvements in water level management plans, but at the same time I think communities will need to take action to better protect shorelines…and even adapt to ensure they can get their boats in the water.

A bald man with white hair and a goatee is standing in his garden.  He has a slight smile and wears a dark blue winter jacket with orange zippers and a fur-lined hood.  There is snow on the ground and trees behind him.
John Sliter, who grew up near Hoople Creek, said he used to see thousands of walleye swimming upstream to spawn. But he said that in recent years he had hardly seen any. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Some of these adaptations are already underway. The St. Lawrence Parks Commission is investing millions to adapt local marinas and campgrounds to the new reality.

Mike Pratt, assistant director of park operations at the St. Lawrence Parks Commission, said that by building breakwater walls, dredging and constructing new boat launches designed for fluctuations more extreme water events, they hope to be better prepared for whatever the future holds.

“Nobody has a crystal ball, but we do our best and we listen to the experts,” he said.

But residents like Sliter and Steinburg worry that if water fluctuations get worse, their region will be penalized, as dam authorities try to balance the needs of cities upstream and downstream, as well as the pressures of the shipping industry.

“We are the weakest link if you will, or the link that can be sacrificed,” Sliter said.

“We want to fight for the protection of our region and we want to fight for the protection of fish and wildlife.”

What a region’s water level problems reveal about climate change and the St. Lawrence River

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