Lake Ontario Water Level Plan Tests Attitudes Toward Environment

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Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

CLAYTON, N.Y.— All the force of the Great Lakes—the largest system of fresh surface water in the world—rushes into the St. Lawrence River and shatters the land into spangles of forest, mist, and water. This is the Thousand Islands region, a labyrinth of more than 1,800 islands where 226-meter-long (740-foot-long) freighters nose their way along the St. Lawrence Seaway into the heart of North America.

The river rolls past the castle homes of 19th-century millionaires and wends through leafy coves and expanses of shallow marshlands. But what appears as a thriving and verdant natural haven is in reality a landscape under assault.

Lee Willbanks pilots his boat along the shores of Grindstone Island, the fourth largest island in the St. Lawrence, and points to a wetland in Flynn Bay. It is a mass of waving cattails, as close together as bristles on a brush and as uniform as a field of corn. Absent are the sedges and grasses, the rushes and meandering water channels that provide food and shelter for birds, fish, and mammals.

“When somebody who doesn’t know the issue goes and stands and looks at a wetland area, and it’s a monoculture of green cattails, it still looks alive, it still looks vibrant, and it’s not,” said Willbanks, who serves as the executive director of Save the River, the Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper in Clayton, New York. “Where you once had channels that spawning fish could go up into, you have nothing but a lot of cattails. They bump their noses on it, they release their eggs in the deeper water or they spawn in inappropriate places. I mean it is a visual, immediate thing.”

Biologists trace the decline of the region’s wetlands to events more than half a century ago. In 1958, 165 kilometers (102 miles) northeast of Clayton, the United States and Canada opened the Moses Saunders power dam—at 2,000 megawatts, one of the world’s largest hydropower projects at the time. The dam, spanning the two countries across the vast watery tract of the St. Lawrence River, was built to fuel the adolescent but rapidly maturing economies of New York and Ontario and would also form a key control point for water levels along the newly constructed St. Lawrence Seaway. And regulators, still raw with the memory of Hurricane Hazel’s ruthless floods four years earlier, granted one other concession: a promise to try to keep water levels in Lake Ontario, as nearly as possible, within a 4-foot range and thereby ensure a measure of flood protection security for lakeside homeowners.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.