By Rosalyn Stevens with files from Edith Cody-Rice

More than 300 residents packed the Civitan Hall last Thursday night, April 11, for a community meeting about the controversial expansion to Enerdu’s Mississippi River hydro power plant at the upper falls in central Almonte. The meeting was organized by the Mississippi Riverwatchers, a grassroots organization of concerned citizens and biology experts founded after last year’s citizen led information meeting on the issue. The Riverwatchers have studied the Enerdu project and its environmental self assessment in minute detail and presented information that the group has gathered over the past year, explaining their opposition to the community.

The first presenter, Lee Valley Tools and Canica Design founder Leonard Lee, spoke of the need for the community to get involved. He praised the extraordinary commitment of Almonte residents noting that they had raised 4 million dollars from a community of 4500 for a hospital and yearly provide in excess of 200 volunteers for the annual Puppets Up festival. In what was titled a community call to action, Mr. Lee said he can see no benefit to the community in the proposed Enerdu project, and asked those in attendance to join the fight against it.

“The Enerdu project will do very little for Almonte, but will do very much to it,” he said. “The most serious will be flooding and more ecological damage upstream.” He noted that the only green element in this project is greenback for owners of the hydro generating station, Enerdu and its owner Jeff Cavanagh.

Local realtor Harold McKay spoke to the crowd about riparian landowner rights, and the potential for a group action on that basis. Those who own waterfront properties are entitled to riparian rights through common law, he said, and those rights include freedom from changes to local water levels that would result from the proposed project. Riverwatcher representative Mike O’Malley said after the meeting that while there is no immediate plan for a law suit on this basis, the first step is to organize landowners and have a discussion.

“We’re working on getting organized as a class,” he said, “and whether there’s an action, we don’t know”, but, he added, the landowners with waterfront properties would be owed financial compensation for infringements on their riparian rights.

“It’s going to cost them,” he stated.

Almonte resident Brad Jones presented a cautionary tale.

He and his wife Judi Angnew are riparian owners at the foot of the lower falls in Almonte. They live just across from the Mississippi River Power Corporation’s new hydro generating station at the base of the lower falls. He warned that we need to be our own advocates; ministries do not have the staff to monitor every project and the results can be unexpected. He compared an architectural drawing of the then-proposed generating station that depicted a lovely limestone cottage-like structure with the final result, a huge concrete eyesore. The community, he said, was assured that the building would be clad in limestone taken from the river bed. Only 10% was clad in stone – the rest is cold grey concrete. At least, he noted, the community benefits from the hydro generated. He observed that the “take water permit” was the best leverage one has to object to a project as that determines the viability of a hydro project.

Though Riverwatcher Chair Bryn Matthews said all were welcome to attend, including representatives of the project, he noted that the meeting was not meant to present Enerdu’s position, which is freely available on-line, but rather to bring forward what the community group has discovered about the project. Representatives from the Ministry of Natural Resources, and the area MPP Jack McLaren, were invited to the meeting, but neither was in attendance. Calls by The Millstone were not returned by either office.

Among the impacts enumerated by the speakers were

  • increased damage to the upriver wetland forest at Appleton;
  • a huge and unsightly power house taking up 1/3 of the current river bed across from the Barley Mow in central Almonte;
  • increased flooding through narrowing of the river channel – the river could flood the post office parking lot, run down Mill Street, through the Gordon Pike owned mall to the parking lot and down Farm Street, forming a lake at the bottom near Metcalfe Park ;
  • ugly steel fences and large signs in the river and on the banks, which would be required if new turbines are put into the project;
  • industrial level noise 24 hours per day 7 days per week;
  • restricted access to the river for swimming, fishing and boating;
  • destruction of the upper level cascading falls, a central factor in the town’s beauty, through building of a 12 foot wide dam (currently the weir is 12 inches);
  • the noise and inconvenience of hoeramming and/or blasting a substantial portion of the riverbed in central Almonte and consequent damage to homes and heritage buildings;
  • no benefit to the town but substantial damage to its tourist potential and quality of living.

Ottawa Riverkeeper Meredith Brown spoke to the group about the importance of standing up for the protection of waterways. She has oversight of the Ottawa River and its tributaries. In many cases, she said, she has seen communities facing similar projects, and she added she is inspired by the level of interest and participation here. She related how the town of Petawawa stopped a similar project through creative action and strong support from the town council.

“The benefits to this community are, I’d say, very little, probably none,” she said. “It’s not like your electricity rates are going down, it’s not like you’re going to be creating green energy for your own homes. It’s not that easy, it’s not that straightforward.”

Energy rates were just one of the issues that brought a reaction from the crowd, when Mr. Lee noted that the province will pay Enerdu 80 cents per kilowatt hour for several years before lowering the rate slightly for the years to follow. He added that electricity could be imported from Quebec, just across the river, for 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

Another issue that seemed to catch the audience by surprise is the level of noise that would be emitted from the proposed new powerhouse. Brian Young noted that in addition to the size of the new building – 104 feet long, 48.75 feet wide, and 25 feet high – the noise permit requested by Enerdu would allow for 60 decibel emissions on a consistent basis. “They want to run at the maximum frequency, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And you want to go sit on the deck of the Barley Mow and have a cold one? Good luck.”

Mr. Young also noted that there are currently 84 small hydro electric projects in Ontario and that each has been rubber stamp approved by the province, however, only in Almonte is the project in the downtown centre of the community.

During the meeting’s question and answer period, one resident asked for Mayor John Levi’s position on the project, drawing much applause.

“I’m one of those people that likes to get all the facts on the table before I make an opinion,” he said. “I think when we get the information we need, we’ll make that decision.” The audience emitted a collective groan.

Mississippi Mills Council will not have the power to put a stop to the project, even if it should make such a decision, because the project is a hydro project making use of a provincial waterway and any construction would be based on crown land That means authority comes directly from the provincial departments involved. As for the tone around the council table on this issue, Councillor Shaun McLaughlin said he is encouraged by the direction council is moving, but added there is still a need for more work to sway councillors into opposition. He encouraged the audience to get downtown merchants onside. “Town council will listen to the opinions of the downtown merchants and landowners,” he said. “It has quite a strong effect.”

During the evening Mr Matthews confessed bafflement that the Mississippi Mills Chamber of Commerce, whose members stand to suffer from this project, has been “nearly hostile” to the Riverwatchers’ efforts.

With respect to oversight of the project if it is launched, Councillor McLaughlin stated that the Mississippi Mills town planner Steve Stirling is sure that the town will have site control but acknowledged that this is limited.

Councillor Val Wilkinson said she and her council colleagues need to hear directly from the community before any swaying can be done. She said there have been no letters or delegations to council on the matter, and in that case, there is little reason for councillors to vote against a project that is facing what appears to be little to no opposition. “Councillors are your representatives,” Councillor Wilkinson continued, “You need to convince them that there are enough people who don’t want this. It may change their position. People need to speak up. We each have a voice. We represent the people.”

One of the most pressing concerns presented at the meeting is the impact of raised water levels on the Appleton Wetland, a soft maple swamp that depends on cyclical flooding and drying to keep trees alive. Since 2004, when higher flash boards were first used in the Mississippi River, Cliff Bennett of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists said there has been a marked impact on the area. Without the required drying out of the swamp land, trees began dying just two years after the water levels were impacted. And with the proposal now at hand, Mr. Bennett said there is little doubt that more damage would be done to the area. The Appleton Wetland has been designated as scientifically significant by the Ministry of Natural Resources. In an effort to reverse the damage done, and fix the problem of high water levels, a request has been formally submitted to the ministry for an amendment to the Mississippi River Water Management Plan. The request seeks to lower the maximum water levels in the area, effectively requiring that the high flash board no longer be permitted. During the meeting, Mr. Bennett noted that the ministry has had the request for 134 days, but has made no progress. When contacted for a comment on these issues, no one from the Ministry of Natural Resources was available for comment.

Enerdu completed its environmental self assessment in December of 2012, and that assessment is now being reviewed by the Ministry of Natural Resources. Enerdu is required to list environmental impacts of the project and to propose remedies for any environmental damage that might occur. The Mississippi Riverwatchers, along with the town council, have asked for the more stringent assessment of the application in a Part II order, and hope to see more details come through that process.

Mr. O’Malley said that while the group that has come together is generally “pro-development,” they have become what he termed “river thugs” looking to impose protection.

“This is your last line of defence between a bad community project and our community values,” he said.

The last comment from audience member Mike Caughey at the end of the question period summed up the meeting. Directing his comments to Mississippi Mills Council, he exclaimed “Council has an obligation to express their leadership. They have to protect this beautiful town!”

For more information about the Mississippi Riverwatchers, see  their website  and their facebook page