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

Strolling along the shoreline from his home on Ault Island, about 30 minutes west of Cornwall, Ontario, Cliff Steinburg points to the end of his dock. He says that 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 what the coming year will bring to a region known for its fishing, beaches and boating.

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

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

The St. Lawrence Seaway is an economic powerhouse; It is not only the lifeblood of local life and tourism in the many cities that dominate its shores, but also a major commercial artery on which commercial shipping between Montreal and Lake Ontario is based.

But the river is changing.

A white-haired man stands in his backyard, facing the camera.  Behind him, a wooden pier juts out into the water.  There is some snow on the ground.
Cliff Steinburg, standing in his backyard on the shoreline of the St. Lawrence Seaway, said it’s frustrating to pay a premium for waterfront property only to have water levels drop so low that ships get stuck on dry land. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Steinburg lives on a particular section of the river known as Lake St. Lawrence. The region was flooded in the late 1950s so that commercial ships could carry their cargo up the river and inland.

Located directly upstream of the Moses-Saunders International Electric Dam, Lake St. Lawrence’s water levels drop when the dam opens so that water can flow from Lake Ontario downstream to Montreal.

While the area has always been vulnerable to some water level fluctuations for that reason, Steinburg said that in the two decades he’s lived there he’s never seen levels as low as the summer of 2022.

According to public data from the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River BoardLake St. Lawrence fell below the lowest lows ever recorded multiple times in recent years, in May 2020, May 2021, and July, August, September, and October 2022.

What climate change means for the Great Lakes

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

A report published this year by Natural Resources Canada warns that “climate change may affect the net supply of water” to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River for decades to come.

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

“We have about 100 years of data on the water level 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,” he said.

In a recent analysis, Seglenieks found that if the global average temperature increases by more than 2.5 C, the range between average monthly minimum and maximum levels in Lake Ontario could grow by as much as one meter, from about two meters to three. Those fluctuations would also trickle down to the St. Lawrence River.

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

“This is the reality that we have to accept…in the end the communities will have to adapt,” Ridal said.

A disappearing bay raises concern for fish

Acceptance is hard to come by, especially among residents who are seeing changes to their beloved local ecosystems.

Avid fisherman John Sliter, president of The Friends of Hoople Creek Society, is especially concerned about the walleye population.

He said the Hoople Bay watershed has been drying up, but it’s part of the annual spawning route taken by fish swimming from the St. Lawrence River upstream to Hoople Creek.

In the foreground of the photo, the exposed river bed shows dried seaweed and rocks exposed to the sun.  In the background, a canoe sits 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 the low water levels made it impossible for tourists to throw anything bigger than a kayak or canoe. . (Presented by the St. Lawrence Parks Commission)

“When I was a little boy growing up in Hoople Creek … there were thousands of fish that used to come up to the creek to spawn,” Sliter said.

“When I came back [to the bay] last summer, it was just a field. From what you can see, it’s dry land, and I found some remains of dead fish.”

He fears that many fish will not reach the stream to spawn before it dries up in the spring. As for the ones that make it on time, Sliter said he’s seen some of their eggs rotting in the sun.

“It’s pretty devastating,” he said.

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

While the research so far hasn’t shown significant differences in fish populations, Ridal said it may take time for the data to catch up with what is a relatively new phenomenon.

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

‘Sacrificial lambs’ in a balancing act

Steinburg and many other locals believe it is the responsibility of the board that manages the Moses-Saunders dam to adjust its operation so that water levels are more consistent.

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

South Stormont Mayor Bryan McGillis agrees that more needs to be done. He is concerned about the economic consequences in his community, not to mention the impacts on home values.

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

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

The Moses-Saunders Power Dam management plan, and how it can be adapted to climate change, is currently under review.

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While there is hope that some adjustments can be made for a future with more extreme weather patterns, Seglenieks cautioned that 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 plan a bit to try to balance it out,” she said.

That balancing act is challenging, because releasing less water from the dam during a dry spell can keep water levels higher for upstream residents, but has consequences downstream.

“It could reduce the water level in the Port of Montreal so low that container ships couldn’t get in, and that would shut down the shipping industry, which generates billions of dollars a day,” he said.

Ridal agrees that there is no easy answer.

“We need a whole range of possible ways to address these issues…hopefully improvements to 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 that they can put their boats on the water.

A bald man with white hair and a goatee stands in his backyard.  He has a slight smile and is wearing 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 has hardly seen any. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

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

Mike Pratt, deputy manager of park operations for the St. Lawrence Parks Commission, said that by building retaining walls, dredging and building new boat ramps designed for more extreme water fluctuations, they hope to be better prepared for what the future holds. future.

“No one has a crystal ball, but we are doing the best we can and we are listening to the experts,” he said.

But residents like Sliter and Steinburg worry that if water fluctuations worsen, their region will bear the brunt, as dam authorities try to balance the needs of upstream and downstream cities, along with 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 area and we want to fight for the protection of fish and wildlife.”

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