Wild Northerner Magazine Summer 2018 - Page 11

HEADLINE: Lifeblood of the North

2nd headline:

Q - What is one river trip that will always stand out in your mind and why?

A - An unforgettable river trip was when we paddled along Lake Superior’s north shore from the Pic River in Pukaskwa National Park to the Michipicoten River. Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world, and one of the wildest! It can be a hair-raising experience because the weather and waves can change very quickly from calm and enjoyable, to extremely rough with high waves and life-threatening situations.

I will never forget when we were trying to beat a big storm that was brewing on Superior and we were paddling hard to get off the lake and enter into the mouth of the Michipicoten River. We were riding huge waves coming in off the lake which were meeting a fast and hard current coming out of the mouth of the river, and it all came together to create massive haystacks directly in our path. I remember turning around in a state of extreme anxiety, to see what my husband was doing in the stern. I’ll never forget the big smile on his face - he was in a state of bliss, but we were riding on the crest of waves that were so high I couldn’t even touch the water with my paddle. I won’t repeat what I said to him, but it was basically, get me out of here – now!

Meanwhile a group of people were watching us from shore as we navigated these huge waves, and all were amazed that we made it in to shore unscathed - but I was shaking in my boots. That night the wind was so strong that it broke two of our tents right down to the ground around the ears of our sleeping paddling partners – but fortunately our tent was spared.

There were many close calls and terrifying moments, like the time when in broad daylight a bear raided one of our tents and ran off with some apparently tasty shampoo. Also, an incident where we didn’t read the rapids quite right, flipped the canoe, and the two of us ended up in the river frantically grabbing for our belongings as they floated by. Thankfully our paddle partners came to the rescue.

There is nothing so unforgiving and powerful as the water, rocks and waves. When paddling, you learn to respect the power of water.

Q - Why are rivers so important to protect?

A - Rivers are the life blood of our planet, they carry and support life and are constantly renewing that life as long as they are not blocked or diverted by dams. Without water there would be no life, so it is essential that we ensure that development does not negatively impact on this finite resource. It’s also essential to look at the cumulative effects of all past, present and future development within a watershed, which is seldom adequately considered in the environmental assessment process.

Dams, diversions, and waterpower facilities can have significant impacts on the aquatic environment, as flow is a major determinant of a river’s ecological characteristics and its aquatic biodiversity. Water impounded behind a dam can transform river ecosystems across wide geographic areas, both upstream and downstream of the dam. This can result in a number of changes to river hydrology, including reduced flow, sediment transport, turbidity, erosion, increased water temperature and degraded water quality. This can significantly alter habitat for fish and other species, and result in the elimination or significant decline in fish and other aquatic populations.

Q - You recently won a Freshwater Hero award. How did that come about? What does that mean to you in your life?

A - In my capacity as Chair of ORA, I work with Freshwater Future, and several other environmental organizations on the Great Lakes Protection Act Alliance. Through our work in building coalitions for some of our dam removal projects, they were aware of the work we were doing in this area, as well as some of our other accomplishments. The award was a very pleasant surprise, as I was one of 2 people in Canada and 6 in the United States to receive this award in 2018.

I volunteer my services and work long hours, but if you do it for rewards or accolades, then you will be sorely disappointed. However, I have to admit that it did feel good to be recognized for what has been accomplished, not just by me, but by ORA’s team and partners.

I also watch for sign-posts that help to confirm that I’m/we’re on the right track, and sometimes it is just nice to have someone say – great job!

Q - How much work went into safeguarding those 24 sites and getting the campaign done about Thames River?

A - Over the five years that we were working to safeguard those sites, I was working long days, up at 6 am and to bed at midnight, and pretty much 7 days a week – my laptop was never far away. My family was concerned, but I was very committed to those people and groups who were depending on ORA. When I was named Chair of ORA, I was quite naive about the amount of work involved, but about three months into it I was overwhelmed with the magnitude of what we were trying to do. After all, the Waterpower Class Environmental Assessment, and that entire process holds no possibility of a “no” outcome. In the beginning I thought we would just have to convince the government of the impacts and consequences of hydroelectric. However, it became crystal clear very early on that it wasn’t green or clean energy or the environment that was fueling the green energy rush. After all, governments continue to ignore the studies reporting that dammed river hot spots in temperate climates can increase global greenhouse gas emissions by up to 7%. Methane is produced when sediment builds up behind the dam, and reservoir reaches are a major source of methane emissions that can continue producing for decades and possibly centuries. Green energy has been more about jobs, and the exploitation and privatization of Ontario rivers.

The Springbank Dam is a recreational dam, the last in a series of several dams on the Thames River, which empties into Lake Erie. The Thames is a Heritage River, with one of the most ecologically diverse riverine ecosystems in Ontario, with over 90 species of freshwater fish, including 11 that are identified by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife Canada as threatened or at risk.

When the Thames River Anglers Association (TRAA) approached the ORA in September of 2015 to see what could be done about the Springbank Dam, the City of London’s Mayor and much of Council were not even considering decommissioning the dam – the Mayor ran his election campaign on repairing the dam and was determined to do just that.

The Springbank Dam fell out of operation in 2008 when one of its gates jammed and became inoperable shortly after it was put back into operation from a previous dam failure. A lawsuit with the contractor ensued, and throughout those 8 years the gates remained open. To everyone’s surprise the river rebounded, allowing an abundance of many different endangered species to recover and re-establish within the riverine ecosystem.

Early in 2016 ORA and the TRAA mounted a compelling letter writing campaign to the Mayor and Council, gathering together a coalition of 20 organizations representing over 250,000 members to jointly sign on. This started a new conversation, which in January of this year, after many twists and turns, ended in a unanimous decision by London City Council to decommission the dam.

Q - What is the driving factor in you being involved in this type of conservation?

A - I guess my driver is a feeling of responsibility that in whatever time I have left, I want to do what I can to make a difference, to raise an awareness, influence policy and legislation, and make progress in protecting our water for our present and future generations. My mantra is that I don’t want to disappoint myself when I pass over – to know that I have not missed any opportunities and have done all that is within my power to ensure clean and healthy water.

Q - What are the biggest changes you've seen personally to rivers in northern Ontario in the last 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?

A - The Vermilion River Stewardship received a sizeable Ontario Trillium Fund grant to undertake a 3-year water quality study on the Vermilion River which cuts through the entire District of Greater Sudbury, where some of the most intense mining activity on the planet has occurred over the last 100 years. In that process we commissioned a sediment core study through Queen’s University, and what we found surprised us. Most of the heavy metals, such as Nichol, Copper, Lead, Iron, Zinc and Arsenic in the sediment of the Vermilion had improved significantly over the last 65 years; whereas phosphorus has seen a recent increase. So, there have been improvements in the treatment of mining effluent and emissions over the years and it is making a difference; however, extreme rain with its associated wastewater treatment bypasses may be having an impact on increasing phosphorus levels.

In September of 2011 the entire lower Vermilion River had a blue-green algae bloom, and again in November of 2012 there was a bloom on Ella Lake, a connecting lake on the Vermilion River system. The bloom lasted from November throughout the winter months until ice break-up in April of 2013. Ella Lake is used as the reservoir for the Wabagishik Rapids Generating Station.

In recent years nuisance blue-green algae blooms have been on the increase in response to elevated nutrient levels in water and sediments caused by run-off from agricultural land, municipal wastewater discharges, and a warming climate.

As climate change progresses we expect to see more of these types of blooms.

Q - From your perspective, how are the state of rivers in northern Ontario?

A - Ontario rivers are a whole lot better than they would have been if all 87 hydroelectric projects had gone ahead. It turned out that only half of those original 87 received power procurement contracts, some were stopped by ORA, and some were withdrawn -likely because of the escalating cost of building a hydroelectric project. So only a handful went ahead and are now in operation, and there were no new hydroelectric projects in the last Feed-in-Tariff procurement. There are also a few moving forward on the Trent/Severn River system on properties owned by the Parks Canada Agency – an already compromised river system. Several northern Ontario rivers were earmarked for waterpower development in off-grid remote communities, like the Pickle Lake and Red Lake Cluster, as well as the Ring of Fire. However, a recent decision was made by the province to push transmission lines through, rather than build new hydroelectric facilities. The Independent Electricity System Operator determined that many of these smaller rivers have low and unreliable flows that only produce at approximately 15 to 30% of installed capacity and are just not viable for a reliable source of power. So, at the moment, to a large extent they are safe from new hydro development.

Q - What are the concerns/ issues/ threats for rivers in northern Ontario in the coming years?

A - ORA acknowledges that our survival on this planet depends on a rapid transition away from fossil fuels to a clean, green and renewable source of power; however, hydroelectric is neither clean or green and may only be renewable once the dam is removed many decades into the future.

The Green Energy Act and Green Economy Act have been a huge threat to Ontario rivers due to the lucrative peaking bonuses that have been offered to produce power during peak demand hours. This has encouraged hydroelectric developers to build dams with reservoirs that hold water back during off-peak hours, to generate power during peak demand. This results in extreme swings in water levels and flow velocity.

Many existing waterpower facilities are now using seasonal operating bands (regulated range of water levels) on a daily basis to generate power during peak demand hours, even though these frequent swings in water levels and flow velocities can have devastating consequences on riverine ecosystems. Furthermore, these new operating strategies are changing without the benefit of an environmental impact assessment to determine what the environmental and socio-economic consequences might be. Ontario rivers are experiencing extremes because of these lucrative incentives without proper consideration of what the trade-offs are.

The effects of dams and hydroelectric facilities on fisheries have been well documented over this past century and include the loss or serious decline of many iconic fish species that are of importance to Ontario’s economy, biodiversity and natural and cultural heritage.

The threat of another push for new hydroelectric is always there; however, the greatest threat of our time is climate change.

Climate change is bringing a whole new set of challenges to Ontario rivers, and will only intensify over time. There are hundreds of dams in Ontario that no longer serve any useful function, and many of those are in a deteriorating state of disrepair. With the extreme rain and droughts that have been on the increase, it is important to make our rivers and lakes more resilient to a warming climate. Consequently, ORA is now focusing our resources on dam removal projects to get our rivers flowing again, and to remove those old and crumbling dams that would put downstream communities at risk.

Last year, during an extreme rain event the Gorrie Dam on the North Maitland River burst and put 150 families at risk, and in 2015 in South Carolina, 18 dams burst and killed 16 people.

There are numerous other threats and risks, but of great concern is the increase in extreme rain events that result in large volumes of undertreated and untreated municipal wastewater effluent being released into many of our streams and rivers, with much of it impacting on the Great Lakes.

Sodium and chloride contamination from road salt is also a growing concern, as it is impacting on many freshwater lakes in Ontario, especially in urban areas. High sodium levels can place those on sodium restricted diets at risk, and there is no practical way to remove sodium from drinking water. High chloride levels can place aquatic life at risk.

Q - What are the key projects/direction for the ORA in 2018 and the near future?

A - The key driver for ORA in 2018 is to continue our work on influencing policy and legislation, but to also place our focus on dam removal projects. In 2017 ORA partnered with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and the Credit Valley Conservation Authority to remove the Rudd Dam on the West Credit River – a coldwater brook trout fishery. We intend it to be the first of many such dam removal projects. We expect to soon begin the planning and work on another dam removal project, again partnering with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, a local Conservation Authority, and others. We are also campaigning hard for several other potential dam removal projects on the West Credit, North Maitland, and Speed Rivers. It is a very challenging job that sometimes ends in success, like the Springbank Dam on the Thames River; however, there is often opposition when head ponds/reservoirs are at risk of being taken away. It is challenging to convince those who have built their investments and dreams around an artificial lake about the environmental and ecosystem benefits of dam removal.

Q - In your seven years with the ORA, what has stood out about the people you work with?

A - As I said, this is a volunteer organization – no one in ORA gets paid, and our Board of Directors and members often travel for many hours on a weekend and have to pay for their gas and accommodation to attend our meetings. They are all very dedicated to our mission to protect, conserve and restore Ontario rivers.

Q - What is the best aspect of your job? what is the toughest aspect?

A - The best aspect of my job is the satisfaction of seeing ORA grow and expand into new and important areas and to see that we are making a difference. Growth is exciting, but at the same time challenging when you operate on a shoe-string budget that relies on membership fees and donations for support. The toughest aspect is the overwhelming job that is ahead of us, and the challenge of ensuring our members’ needs and expectations are being met. But most importantly that we are fulfilling our mission to protect, conserve and restore Ontario rivers. Visit our website and Blog here.

Q - Tell us about your history and passion for water and rivers?

A - Many of my most cherished childhood memories revolved around time spent fishing, swimming, boating and camping in many remote northern destinations across Ontario. I also married a man who loved the outdoors and was an avid paddler. So, early on and throughout our marriage, we went on some amazing canoe trips, and I learned to paddle by fire. We have paddled all the way from Lake Superior to the mouth of James Bay, and spent many summer vacations on wild and beautiful rivers throughout Ontario. I wasn’t really aware there were environmental issues until the late 90’s when I was driving across a local bridge into the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek community, and a pungent smell like rotting flesh drew my attention. I pulled over to see what it was, and to my great surprise, as far as the eye could see the river and lake were so covered in bright green algae that it looked like a well-groomed golf course. That smell was rotting algae.

Shortly after that I joined the local stewardship group to see what I could do to help, and that was my initiation into taking action to protect our water. I was also motivated by the fact that our first grandchild was on the way. I had a strong drive to ensure that our children and grandchildren have a future with clean and healthy water.

Q - What is your favourite thing about rivers and what do you love to do on them?

A - As I said, we live on the Vermilion River, and our home and property are like a resort to our friends and family. So, we entertain a lot and love to share our little piece of paradise. We swim, fish, paddle and play in and around the river. My favourite thing is the sound of my grandchildren laughing and splashing in the river – that’s what it’s all about.