Flow Lake Ontario through the South Nation — a drought solution?

Above, South Nation River near Inkerman. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Op/Ed

by Harry Valentine

Much of Eastern Ontario is currently experiencing a prolonged drought with farmers expressing concern over their 2020 crop yield. Amidst the summer drought, the regulatory agency that oversees water levels along the St. Lawrence River, the St. Lawrence River International Board of Control and their parent agency the International Joint Commission have been reporting higher-than-normal water levels in Lake Ontario and even across the Upper Great Lakes.

St. Lawrence River High Water:

The Board of Control has hosted several public briefings to explain the water situation along the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes, with Lake Ontario water height water being controlled at the combination of the Iroquois Locks and the Moses-Saunders power dam. During the spring melt, allowing excess water to flow downstream of the Moses-Saunders dam incurs the risk of flooding at the City of Montreal. The higher-than-normal water levels on the Great Lakes have occurred over several successive years, leading some board members to theorize that “this may be the new normal caused by climate change!”

While Lake Ontario and the Upper St. Lawrence River hold excess water levels, farms located across Eastern Ontario face the prospect of reduced crop yields caused by a lack of summer rainfall over the region. Perhaps a question needs to be put before the farming community, “Would you be interested in farming by irrigation if a lack of summer rain caused by climate change is the new normal?” In the Southwestern United States, irrigated water sustains a very large segment of farm production and including in what are essentially desert regions.

Water Transfer:

While the South Nation River Conservation Authority has issued an alert in regard to low water levels in the South Nation River, an option to raise water levels in that river for the benefit of farmers, is possible. One of the tributaries that flows into the South Nation River has its origins located close to the St. Lawrence River, just north of the Village of Cardinal and with potential to transfer water. The relevant section of the St. Lawrence River is located upstream of the Iroquois Locks and at the same elevated water height as Lake Ontario. 

The short distance between the St. Lawrence River and the tributary of the South Nation River allows for the installation of a water pipeline and a high volume electrically-driven water pump at the St. Lawrence River. During some off-peak periods, Ontario’s power utility actually pays outside power utilities to take delivery of excess Ontario nuclear electric power and excess wind generated power. There would therefore be scope to transfer excess off-peak electric power to drive a water pump to move water from the St. Lawrence River into the headwaters of the South Nation River. 

Irrigation:

Farmers located along and near affected sections of that river need to advise as to whether they would be willing to sustain crop production through irrigation instead of being 100 percent dependent on unpredictable summer rain. While minimal summer rain threatens the livelihood of Eastern Ontario farmers, higher-than-normal water levels on Lake Ontario would allow some area farmers to switch to irrigation to sustain summer time crop production. There would need to be discussion across the region in regard to future agricultural strategy in the event that climate change reduces summertime rainfall. 

The South Nation Conservation Authority would need to establish policies in regard to farmers sourcing water from sections of the South Nation River. During the spring melt, frozen ground prevents melting water from soaking into the groundwater and with the result that groundwater levels have been declining across much of Eastern Ontario. The combination of transferring water from the St. Lawrence River and a practice called permaculture can over time and practiced following the spring melt, replenish groundwater levels and sustain several forms of summer time agricultural production such as potatoes that require less water than corn production.

 

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