It sounds like a plot crafted by Pinky and the Brain, but it could be one of the biggest ecological restoration projects in recent history: the United States and Canada have agreed to a new plan that will help restore wetlands by changing the way water levels are controlled in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.
A healthy wetland experiences periods of high and low water, but the Moses-Saunders Dam near Cornwall has been suppressing fluctuations for more than 50 years. Plan 2014 — finally adopted this month after two years of jurisdictional wrangling — will bring back that ebb and flow to 26,000 hectares of wetlands. It was drafted by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a binational organization that manages waters crossing the Canada-U.S. border, and its decade-long development was backed by a $20-million research fund.
Wetlands are useful in filtering storm-water runoff, and with climate change causing more frequent and intense storms around the Great Lakes, restoring them is vital. The Moses-Saunders Dam’s ability to control water levels could help alleviate sudden rises from storms, or prepare for droughts by stanching outflow from Lake Ontario, keeping water levels higher. The idea is to allow for more natural ebbs and flows, but still mitigate damaging, extreme conditions.
In 1958, when the dam was originally configured, little was known about wetland ecology. The plan then called for water levels to be kept steady — which makes sense for property owners, but not for Lake Ontario's ecosystem.
“No one really appreciated the damage that it would do to the ecosystem. The damage has been pointed out over the decades since,” says IJC chair Gordon Walker. (For example, thanks to the 1958 plan, cattails have grown rampant in wetlands around the basin, choking out other vegetation.) “What we have done after 14 years of study and $20 million of cost, what we have managed to achieve is a greater restoration of the natural balance.
“There's nothing of that equal in North America since they spent billions of dollars in the Everglades to bring back the balance in Florida,” says Walker, referring to the $10.5-billion wetlands restoration effort approved by the U.S. Congress in 2000.
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Left unchecked, Lake Ontario’s water levels would vary wildly. Variation is good, but extreme variation can cause flooding, affect drinking water, and damage coastal ecosystems and properties. Plan 2014 attempts to alleviate those effects while generating power and maintaining something closer to natural water-level fluctuation. The dam won’t let the water get too high or too low; without such moderation, IJC models peg shoreline damage at $46 million.
Under the new plan, the IJC estimates damage from erosion and flooding will cost $20 million annually, basin-wide. (By comparison, the 1958 plan causes $18 million in damage each year.)
Walker says flood-prone homes are generally on the south shore of the lake. There’s a historical reason for this: in 1954, Hurricane Hazel caused massive flooding around the Lake Ontario basin. In this province, that led to restrictions on development in flood plains. The response in New York was different, Walker says, and today several communities stand on flood plains. In Sodus Point, for instance, a local news report says the community has already experienced flooding under the current plan.
“Whether we put our plan in now, whether we continued with the plan we put in 1958, or if we continued without the dams, those places are going to be flooded,” Walker says. “If the water is rising to the level of the keys on your grand piano, it may be a couple inches higher, but your piano is still destroyed.”
Walker says most of the damage will be caused by erosion — when the water level peaks over the height of protective rock walls and eats away at fragile shorelines. Under the new plan, the maximum water level will increase by 6 cm, while the floor will drop about 30 cm, but Walker says those levels will only be hit in extreme circumstances.
“Everything in life is a tradeoff,” he says. “These peaks are like mountain ranges — there might be 10 years between a peak, there might be 20 years between a peak. The peaks will bring about some higher waters in some areas, and it will cause damage on the lake. But keep in mind: it's been doing this for 10,000 years.”
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