The flood gates to the door of the open house hosted here Tuesday by the Ministry of Natural Resources on the future of two area dams burst open with more than 50 concerned citizens attending.
At issue is the possible decommissioning of the Footprint Lake and Manitou River (Esox Lake) dams, which currently are undergoing a class environmental assessment after being earmarked as safety hazards during a dam safety assessment done to all MNR dams in the north.
Other options being considered are rehabilitating the dams, reconstructing them, or doing nothing.
The dams were put on a list in order of priority from a safety perspective during the safety assessment.
“The Esox and Footprint Lake dams are on the top of that list,” said Allan Chow, a regional engineer for the MNR, adding they are the only two in the Fort Frances area in that bad of shape.
“The dams are very unsafe for both the operator and the public,” echoed Michael Garraway, with Trow Consulting Engineers Ltd., which was retained to do the environmental assessment and plans for construction and rehabilitation.
“They are pretty typical ministry dams,” Garraway added. “They’re in a state of needing repair. There’s a lot of scaling and concrete deterioration.”
Garraway said the expected life span of the dams is five years.
“It doesn’t mean in five years the dam will collapse,” said Chow. “But we know if we don’t do anything, it will get worse and worse. That’s why we’re planning to do something about it.”
“Under ice load conditions—the most severe condition for a dam to be under—the dams could fail,” Garraway warned.
Garraway said that when compared to the Ontario Dam Safety Guidelines (1999), the two dams don’t measure up. “Both Esox and Footprint dams don’t fit those guidelines [for ice load conditions],” he remarked.
“Most people understand that the option of not doing anything really isn’t an option,” said Jeff Wiume, MNR supervisor for the Rainy River/Manitou area, who was impressed with the number of people who showed up for yesterday’s open house.
“Water level and roads, the two topics people get interested in,” he joked. “Folks I talked to had the most questions about building or repairing the dams.
“There have been some people talking a little bit about decommissioning,” he added. “The questions that were asked I haven’t been able to answer.”
Wiume noted people were wanting to know where the water level would be in relation to their dock or property, but those are questions that can’t be answered unless a more in-depth study of the areas is done, including environmental and hydrological impacts.
“They are obvious questions if you put yourself in the watershed,” he conceded. “They’re lake folk. I understand where they are coming from.”
“People get passionate about their cabins,” said Audrey Henneman of Baudette, Mn., a cabin owner on Jackfish Lake which is accessed through Footprint and Lake Despair.
She explained people put a lot of their time, effort, and money into the cabins in that system and if the Footprint Lake dam were removed, they’d all lose access to them.
“We’re here to see to it that we don’t lose the dam,” said her husband, Rae Henneman. “It would affect us all so we couldn’t get through. Without the dam, we wouldn’t have this chain of lakes.”
“If you removed that option [decommissioning] from the table, nobody would be here,” Tony Marinaro, director of operations for Naicatchewenin First Nation (Northwest Bay), told MNR officials.
“If you did, we could grab a doughnut and get out of here.”
Marinaro said the impact of removing the Footprint dam on the First Nation would be large.
“It would have a severe impact on our community,” he stressed. “Our biggest concern is what we experienced last summer.”
He said many buildings are built close to the shoreline of Rainy Lake and being downstream from the dam, after its removal, could cause flooding in the community.
“We’ve got bridges we put in that are built to specific water levels,” he added. “They admit they’re just kicking tires. Their study better be a little more extensive.”
Pat Howard of Ross’ Camp shared concerns of losing the Footprint dam. “If Footprint is down six feet, Jackfish Lake will be land-locked,” she warned.
She explained their camp uses the waterway from Clearwater Lake to Lake Despair, then to Footprint Lake via the Mile River, and into Jackfish Lake to reach their outpost camps.
“There are far too many cabins on Jackfish Lake to consider selling it as a fly-in outpost,” Howard said. “If the water drops six feet, we won’t get in there.”
One of the arguments for removing the dams is to re-establish the natural environment and hydrology (the way water flows naturally) in the affected areas.
“On Esox, it’s an interesting opportunity to have further study,” said Wiume.
“There are two kinds of environment—a man-made environment and one that goes back to Mother Nature. For me as a land manager, it’s intriguing,” he added.
He explained the original reason for the Esox Lake dam was to allow navigation by boats with a large, nine-foot draft. He said the largest boat being used in that system today only has a three-foot draft.
Of course, he admitted there also are social requirements for the dam that weren’t there a century ago.
“If you’ve been on the lake for 30 years, it’s hard to imagine a different lake,” he said, adding that is what people would have to do if the dam was removed because the shoreline would change—as would the hazards under the water.
“I would say they should leave the dam there,” said Ted Davis, who operates Barker Bay Outfitters on the Lower Manitou.
“I go down [to the dam] voluntarily to keep it going because they wanted to just keep it open [without restricting the water],” he said. “It would affect access to the lake and [my] business.
“I have an airplane hangar with three feet of water that’d be dry,” he added. “My docks would be out of water.
“We’d still get along, it would just make things tougher. We’ll have to go back to being strictly a fly-in camp,” he joked.
“The impact on the environment and spawning would be high,” said Gerard Lambert, who used to use the lakes affected by the Footprint dam in his youth and wants to protect that chain.
“Everything has adjusted,” he noted, describing the environment and ecosystems. “It’s all been in place for so long now.
“Water is a hell of a good resource and we want to conserve it,” Lambert added, saying how dry it can get some years and trying to imagine what it would be like if the dam were gone.
“We can’t be too short-sighted,” he warned. “Just rebuild the dams.”
If public opinion sways the decision to reconstruct or rehabilitate the dams, it will cost more than $1 million each to do so.
“This decision will be a local decision,” said Wiume, adding the local decision will need to be approved by the MNR district manager. “That’s always the concern of the public.
“Folks get concerned that the decision has already been made,” he added. “The decision is not made, honest to God, it’s not.
“The class environmental assessment is an open process, it really is,” Wiume stressed. “The value of an environmental assessment is talking to people ahead of the decision.”
The local MNR office will accept public input into the fate of the two dams until Jan. 29.
The comments and information collected from the public then will be examined and a decision as to a course of action will be made in February—meaning more studies may be ordered before the fate of each dam is determined.