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Communication key to managing water levels


Communication is key to efficiently managing water levels.

That message came up time and again during the annual joint public meeting on the regulation of Rainy and Namakan lakes and the water quality of the Rainy River last Tuesday at La Place Rendez-Vous here.

On a day-to-day basis, the two power companies—H20 Power LP in Canada and Boise Inc. in the United States—decide how much water to release through the dams, as long as they keep the levels within the rule curve band set by the International Joint Commission (IJC).

Rick Cousins, Canadian engineering advisor with the International Rainy Lake Board of Control (IRLBC), explained the levels are monitored remotely by the companies and the boards. Each day, the company operators make decisions—using analytical tools—as to what flows they need going out that day.

If there is a change in flow, the crews are notified and those changes are made.

One of the difficulties in reacting is determining inflows (i.e., how much water is coming into the lakes). While the ability to get hourly water level data is helpful to the companies, predicting precipitation and translating the inflow isn’t easy.

“It rained on the weekend, but how much of a difference is that going to make?” noted Cousins.

“That is part of the difficulty in reacting,” he stressed. “The science just isn’t there yet to be able to translate the rainfall or the snow melt into the reaction time for the lakes.”

U.S. engineering advisor Edward Eaton noted the IRLBC occasionally has had to step in and direct the companies to do something out of the ordinary.

For example, in 2002, communities like Pinewood and Rainy River were in danger of flooding due to heavy rainfall. As such, the outflow from Rainy Lake had to be held back—even though the lake level was above the rule curve band.

But sometimes more parties are involved. This past spring, Rainy River First Nations expressed concern over the low river level and how it was affecting sturgeon eggs. The band contacted the Ministry of Natural Resources, which, in turn, contacted the boards, letting them know a very small area of the basin had been affected by the low water level.

The boards contacted the dam operators and directed them to adjust the outflow and prevent further jeopardizing of the sturgeon spawn.

“Increased outflow was coming out of Fort Frances within four-five hours . . . I think it was an example of when there is communication, things can happen,” said Cousins.

He pointed out that while many people are concerned about lake levels, decisions made with the dams greatly affect the river at the other end.

“Even though it was a dry year, there were periods of rainfall and trying to stay in the rule curves, the companies had to increase outflow,” he recalled.

“The levels on the river changed by about 10 feet right below Fort Frances . . . from the minimum flows in the early spring to the maximum outflows later on in the season as a response to heavy rainflows,” he explained.

“So, you’re sitting on the lake, and you’re thinking [about] what’s happening with your docks or what’s happening with your fishing areas, think about the river where the impact is a 10-foot change over this year.”

As a side note, Lee Grim, U.S. board member of the IRLBC, noted many people call him and ask, “Why aren’t the gates open?”

He explained there are 15 gates—10 at the main dam and five at the canal—and people usually can only see 10 of them.

“So you could have all five of the canal gates open under the bridge when you go into Canada, and people are screaming and hollering, ‘Why aren’t you opening the gates?’

“If you were the companies, you wouldn’t be opening the gates any more than you had to, would you?” he reasoned.

“If you can run water through and make things work and keep things within the level, why waste water?

“That’s wasted energy,” Grim stressed.

Several delegates advised the public to check out the IJC website at

Information such as lake levels, how many dam gates are open, historical data, and much more is updated daily. There also are links to contact board members and engineers.

“If there are questions we can’t answer, we’ll ask them and then get back to you,” pledged Cousins.

“Information transfer, the communication, is really important, and that people understand,” he stressed.

“That website is really valuable,” Cousins added. “Those graphs are updated on the website every day.

“We post the gate settings for Rainy Lake and Kettle Falls and Squirrel Falls, so people can go on the website and see what the gate settings are, what the water levels are.

“Communication is key, and we’re willing to share that data, share what we know,” he reiterated.

Dry year

Starting last November, there were very low flows into Rainy Lake—well below the bottom of the rule curve band throughout the winter but not quite as far as the drought line, noted Gail Faveri, Canadian co-chair of the IRLBC.

Then, in the middle of March, there was an early snow melt, briefly causing the inflows the spike above the rule curve and necessitating the increase of outflow by opening more dam gates.

But as the lake level rose to higher elevations in April, May, and June, it stayed within the rule curve band, which also rises in spring and summer.

Only in mid-June and once in early July was it necessary to open all five canal gates as well as a couple of the main dam ones.

Randy Pozniak, of the Border Lakes Association, noted the area has had an unusually dry year, with very little snow last winter. As such, he felt all parties have done “a great job” maintaining the water levels on Rainy Lake and Namakan basins.

“I personally had a fear we’d have a real low water year this year, and everybody did a great job,” he lauded.

Tom Worth, a member of the Rainy Lake Sportfishing Club, agreed that the watershed was very well-managed.

“It’s quite evident that people were on the ball,” he remarked.

River quality

Meanwhile, Jeff Stoner, U.S. co-chair of the International Rainy River Water Pollution Board (IRRWPB), said it continues to look at mining development and its effects on the watershed on both sides of the Rainy River, as well as the effects of water level regulation on wild rice, invasive species, and the government response to the Lake of the Woods/Rainy River watershed report.

Stoner said the IRRWPB has many projects on the go, including the Seine River sturgeon project, hydraulic modelling of the Namakan pinch points, and IJC data harmonization for the Rainy River basin.

It also is looking at the effects of the IJC rule curves on fish spawning and nursery habitat; cultural sites; water treatment plants and fish hatcheries; benthic invertebrates, mussels, nesting birds, and vegetation; and flooding and ice damage.

Stoner noted Mike Shantz, with the Boundary Waters Issues Unit of Environment Canada, is looking to do a study on flooding and ice damage to people’s property on the lakes and along the river.

“He’d be very interested in understanding the effects that the rule curves might have had on these particular two issues,” said Stoner.

Shantz would like to talk to some of the local landowners and resort owners regarding this topic, he added, noting Shantz is “looking for some really grassroots information.”

Faveri said Shantz also would like some photos indicating damage caused by flooding and ice damage.

Those interested can contact Shantz at 1-905-336-4956 or via e-mail him at

The IRLBC and IRRWPB are committed to holding a joint public meeting once a year.

The main purpose is for board members and commissioners to make themselves available to the public, as well as give them a chance to meet face-to-face with the people who might have comments or questions instead of simply getting feedback through their respective organizations.

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