By Trish Dyer
It could be mistaken- on the surface- for a small news story.
But it’s not.
An Appleton resident has been taking on a dizzying array of authorities and ‘stakeholders’ over what’s happening to a short (less than 9km) stretch of long (212km) river: the Mississippi River between Appleton and the first set of Almonte falls.
The concern in Appleton is that the manipulation of the river behind a series of lumber barriers in Almonte to increase power generation at a local turbine is flooding deep into the shoreline and may be what is killing trees in the Appleton wetland forest.
Appleton Wetland Forest May 2011 Photo: copyright Mike O’Malley 2010
This is a harbinger, perhaps, of competing interests: ecology v increasingly lucrative profits in the power industry: deregulation v climate change; and who knows what else: a real-life, real-time tipping point centred on less than 4% of the Mississippi River’s shoreline.
A power game, it can be said, in all the meanings of that word.
To make sense of the controversy, a brief lesson in social studies, that old-time combination of history and geography:
The Mississippi River springs from Kilpecker Creek at the headwaters of Upper Mazinaw Lake in the Township of Addington Highlands, loops south (Cloyne) north east (Snow Station – McDonald’s Corners- Carleton Place) doubles back slightly at Appleton and flows north through Almonte and Pakenham and Galetta before draining into the Ottawa River near Marshall’s Bay (just east of Arnprior) in Ottawa (formerly West Carleton.)
As she descends – remember water does not flow uphill- traversing nine townships and towns (and one city) the River follows what geologists describe as a cleft between two ancient rock formations. Flowing from rock basin to rock basin (lake), tumbling over spectacular falls and running rapids the Mississippi, in fact, drops a spectacular 827 feet in total.
But there’s more.
As she drops, the Mississippi acts as a moving drain, drawing water from more than 260 lakes through several significant other river systems (the Indian, Clyde and Fall River systems amongst them), a dozen or more sizeable creeks including Buckshot (Ardoch) Antoine and Cranberry and countless streams.
Interconnected bodies of water draining into a single source (in this case the Ottawa River) are known as watersheds. And the Mississippi River Watershed is large: 4,450 square kilometers of Eastern Ontario.
Sounds like a heck of a lot of water, doesn’t it?
Well, it is and it isn’t. Remember those lessons we had on the cycle of precipitation: rain, condensation, evaporation, snow, snow melt and evaporation…
Contrary to popular myth, the Mississippi River Watershed has a finite, a limited supply of water. In fact, it relies solely on rain and snow (precipitation) to exist- precipitation in quantities sufficient to offset evaporation.
The Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority is responsible for managing water levels throughout the Watershed: a complicated job that includes keeping detailed records of precipitation v evaporation. And the records are not encouraging.
Historically, precipitation (water-in) levels range from 750 – 870 mm a year, mostly in the spring (with increasingly wild fluctuations) while evaporation (water- lost) ranges from 300-530 mm per year.
Net gain? Between 240 and 450 mm annually: somewhere between 10 and 15 inches.
Not a lot of water, by any measure, to keep a river system alive.
In fact, until British timber barons hit upon the idea of ‘managing’ the Mississippi by constructing a series of rudimentary log dams at the outlets of finger lakes in the upper part of the watershed during the 1860’s, substantial portions of the Mississippi dried up completely every summer. (see accompanying article: Managing the Mississippi: Nature v Nurture to be published tomorrow.)
The Power Game
During World War 1, Ontario, anxious to meet growing demands for electricity, turned their attention to a number of rivers including the Mississippi. Or, more specifically, to the upper Mississippi, from the first of those aforementioned pioneer dams down to Crotch Lake, over High Falls and into Dalhousie Lake.
Provincial officials were persuaded that, by using the log dams (still in use today) they could, influence the water level downstream in Crotch Lake and ensure a steady flow of water over High Falls.
Farmers were conscripted to begin construction of the High Falls Generating Station in December 1918 (war related shortage of workers) and laboured through the winter ‘til spring seeding while the provincial government rounded up workers from Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal to take their place. And two short years later, High Falls began to produce electricity. Though there was, and remains, only enough water to operate one of three of the station’s turbines year round.
Harnessing Mississippi River waterfalls to generate power, was not, of course, a novel idea even in 1915. From Lanark to Carleton Place and Almonte to Pakenham, lumber and grist (flour) mills had been erected below waterfalls in the early 1800’s, the textile (woolen) mills at Appleton and Almonte not far behind.
As times and markets and economies changed, however, those mills stilled one by one. The Maple Leaf (grist) Mill in Almonte (directly across from the River from the Barley Mow) being amongst the last, if not the last to shut down in the mid-1980’s.
However, the downstream portion of the River which had attracted pioneering entrepreneurs to the present day sites of Carleton Place, Appleton, Almonte, Pakenham and Galetta and all points in- between, had already begun to draw a new generation of entrepreneurs.
Nuclear energy had been seized upon as reliable, cost effective solution to growing electricity demands throughout the world, including Ontario, during the ‘60’s. However, barely half- way through the twenty year struggle (1968-1988) to build the Pickering Nuclear Plant just east of Toronto, the government of the day was badly rattled by the ‘mini’ disaster at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in April 1979.
In a province with over 4000 lakes and countless rivers, some reasoned, surely there was greater potential in safer, cheaper hydro electricity. Perhaps- the government put out feelers- private industry might be interested.
Almonte resident Laurent Dupuis was definitely interested.
He and his son Mike bought an old generating station from Ontario Hydro downstream at Galetta in 1983 and had it up and running selling power ‘back to the grid’ in a year.
Three years later, buoyed by their success, they founded Canadian Hydro Components a highly regarded Almonte based designer and manufacturer of super-efficient turbines.
They also went on to purchase a generating station at Appleton, resurrected from the ruins of a textile mill by one of their customers in 1993, then the old (circa 1842) Maple Leaf Mill (circa 1842) in downtown Almonte, rebuilding the Maple Leaf turbine and bringing both on-stream in 1995.
In 1998, however, Ontario’s Energy Competition Act came into force, legislation separating ‘wires’ (ie. delivery) from electrical power generation. Private operators of water power generation facilities would be subject to regulation by the Ministry of Natural Resources who would also be responsible for finding ways to ‘meet the needs of all interests’ from Ontario Hydro, cottagers and homeowners to species ranging from lake trout, pike and bass to wildlife, to significant shoreline eco-systems under the Lakes and Rivers Act (Mississippi River Water Management Plan pp 4).
Small power producers were daunted. The Dupuis family sold the Appleton and Galetta G.S. (Generating Stations) a year later to company called Canadian Hydro Developers Inc.
However Mike Dupuis (his father passed away shortly after the sale) continued to operate Enerdu (Energy Dupuis) G.S. at the Maple Leaf Mill and was soon rewarded for his fortitude by rising electricity prices fuelled by deregulation of the electricity market in Ontario in 2002.
The stretch of the Mississippi which lies between the Appleton Generating Station and the top of the first falls at Almonte (site of the Enerdu/Maple Leaf operation is roughly nine kilometers. Commonly known as The Appleton Wetlands, the shoreline is lined with red (soft) maples and a host of flora, fauna and insects unique enough to have been deemed worthy of special protection by the Ministry of Natural Resources as an Area of Scientific and Natural Interest or ANSI.
The ANSI is a favourite (paddling) destination for the (300) strong membership of the Mississippi Field Naturalists Club, including Cliff Bennett, who has been visiting it for close to twenty years.
Appleton resident Mike O’Malley also appreciated the ANSI. He owns a float plane and loved to study it from the air, often taking aerial photographs.
Both men say they first began to notice the changes during the summer of 2007: red (soft) maple trees listing, toppling, unusual blooms of algae. By 2008 the damage had spread: acres of red (soft) maples dying, massive blooms of algae, an island (treed) completely disappeared. Bennett and O’Malley both saw it. O’Malley recorded it (see accompanying photographs.) O’Malley’s wife noted previously shallow area now consistently deep enough to swim.
Appleton Wetland forest in June 2006 Photo: copyright Mike O’Malley 2006
Appleton wetland forest in July 2010 with algae bloom along both shores Photo:copyright Mike O’Malley 2010
Mike Stockton, who operated the Appleton Generating Station on behalf of Canadian Hydro Developers Inc. from 1999 until it was sold last year, had urged O’Malley, a neighbor, to join a public advisory committee formed to contribute to the drafting of the- then nascent Mississippi River Water Management Plan.
O’Malley hadn’t attended many meetings- a decision he would soon come to regret- but he knew about the Enerdu G.S. operating at the falls and flew down to take a look. Then, he drove down.
And what he saw- as far as he’s concerned- was and remains the source of the problem.
Flashboards are pieces of lumber (traditionally 2 x 8’s.) If you stand pieces of lumber (held in place by pins driven into the river bed) across the top of a waterfall – leaving a single gap – it is possible to increase the volume (weight) / flow (speed) of water through that gap and down into turbines below.
Flashboards on the Mississippi River at the upper Almonte Falls Photo: copyright John T. Fowler 2011
Increases result in increased electricity. Indeed, with a control system in place, the boards can be manipulated. Timing increases to take advantage of peak time prices (electricity prices are updated every five minutes. However, the boards must, of necessity, hold back water.
What O’Malley saw, in 2007, were a series of Enerdu flashboards installed across the width of the river with a gap above the recently enlarged turbine structure at the foot of the Maple Leaf Mill.
Mike Stockton, who operated the Appleton G.S. for Canadian Hydro Developers Inc. until was sold a little over a year ago, doesn’t dispute the effect of Enerdu’s boards on water levels all the way back to Appleton.
The flow or speed with which water flows through a turbine is affected not just by point of entry but by point of departure. In short, if the water level at the bottom of the turbine is raised, a sort of bottleneck is created, slowing the turbine’s output.
“I could tell you within an hour when Enerdu put their boards in (downstream) in the spring,” Stockton says.
“My power output immediately went down by 10%.”
However, Stockton, who was an active member of the steering committee formed by the MNR to set – amongst other things- allowable water levels in each section and sub-section (called reaches) along the Mississippi’s 212 km. length, says Enerdu is operating within allowable limits. And he is not persuaded that damage to the wetlands is due to increased water levels.
“I would be looking at insect infestation and severe weather events, deluges, what have you, heavy rains in the fall – that kind of thing- before water levels,” he says, pointing to the fact that flashboards have been placed across the same falls, by Maple Leaf for one, since the 1960’s.
O’Malley and Bennett, of the Misssissippi Field Naturalists Club disagree.
“There is a similar wetland (just north of Carleton Place) at Lavallee Creek upstream of the Appleton dam – just a few miles away and it’s as healthy as it ever was,” Bennett says.
“If the problem is climate or insect related, then why hasn’t that area been affected?”
O’Malley, who says he didn’t realize- back on the advisory committee- that flashboards were permitted in a “run-of-the-river” system, is also not persuaded.
“The steering committee in charge of the (Mississippi) Water Management set the range of acceptable water levels between the Appleton Dam (G.S.) and the Falls based on so-called historical or normal levels. Where or who did they get those numbers from?”
Dupuis sold Enerdu to Jeff Cavanagh, a local businessman, one year ago.
The Millstone requested an interview with Mike Dupuis through his office at Canadian Hydro Components in early July. He has not responded.
However, O’Malley says Dupuis was aware of shoreline flooding all the way back through the ANSI to the Appleton Generating Station (9km) behind the flashboards before Enerdu was sold.
“Mike (Dupuis) was aware of the problem at least two years ago, or at least one full year before the business was sold. I know, because I called and told him so,” O’Malley says.
O’Malley approached Mississippi Council, two of whose members serve as directors of the Mississippi Conservation Authority on June 6, asking for help in persuading Enerdu to forego the flashboards this year. His presentation, covered by local weekly newspapers, drew the ire of lawyers for Enerdu owner Jeff Cavanagh and Thomas Cavanagh Construction Ltd.
Jeff Cavanugh, who has been employed at the construction company for many years, is Thomas Cavanagh’s son. However, Enerdu and Thomas Cavanagh Construction are separate entities and, according to lawyers for both parties, the only link between them is the familial relationship between the two men.
Mississippi Councillor Duncan Abbot subsequently volunteered to chair a meeting between representatives of Enerdu, Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority, O’Malley and other interested parties.
Conservation Authority Water Management Supervisor Gord Montenay, who said the entire watershed is experiencing unusually high water levels, agreed, on behalf of the authority, to look into the issue, but, like former Appleton G.S. manager Mike Stockton, also suspects the deterioration may be due to some other cause.
Enerdu representative Ron Campbell served notice at that meeting that Enerdu intends to file an application seeking permission to expand the function of the flashboard system in the near future.
Legislation governing the province’s first generation of (5 year) watershed management plans requires ongoing management by a ‘steering committee’. That committee, comprised of representatives of the Conservation Authority, Ministry of Natural Resources and power generators, has promised to investigate O’Malley’s complaint and discuss their findings at a meeting in September.
O’Malley has also been invited to attend a meeting of the Watershed’s Standing Advisory Committee meeting this fall.
However, it seems neither committee has the power to affect change regardless of their findings. .
After a prolonged, co-operative process between various agencies and authorities, the public, power generators and countless volunteers, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) appears to have positioned itself as the ultimate authority in management of the Mississippi River Watershed.
MNR staff at Kemptville, the office responsible for the watershed, did not return a call from The Millstone.
However, Sarah Nugent, Water Services Co-ordinator, outlined the MNR’s position in a letter to O’Malley dated July 5th.
The MNR is satisfied that Enerdu is operating within approved guidelines and has the right to continue to do so, the letter says.
If the Steering Committee responsible for managing the plan decides, upon investigation, those guidelines need to be changed, it could recommend a formal amendment to the Plan, Nugent writes.
Should such an amendment be required, however, Nugent says ‘a process considering public and aboriginal consultation requires completion before a potential change would be approved.”
O’Malley is frustrated.
The Plan, formally sanctioned by the MNR in 2006, presents a list of Plan objectives, presumably in descending order of priority. Maintaining Aquatic Eco-system Health heads the list along with public safety. Power generation ranks fourth below and water level maintenance for navigational, recreational, cultural and social purposes. .
The only objective ranked lower than ‘Power Generation Values’ is Developing Public Awareness of Current Conditions.