The International Joint Commission’s draft supplementary order governing lake levels, issued yesterday, is good for Namakan but will hurt walleye in Rainy Lake, opponents warned.
“My gut feeling looking at this now is it’s good news for people living on Namakan reservoir,” noted Paul Radomski, a fisheries biologist with Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources who co-chaired an international steering committee that did a five-year study on water levels on the two lakes.
“But I’m kind of disappointed for the people at Rainy Lake,” he added. “When we started looking at this, we had a serious walleye problem. All the experts agreed we needed adequate spring spawning waters.
“With this, we’re not going to get the improvement we should have gotten with the international steering committee’s recommendation,” he argued.
Co-chair Bill Darby, area manager for the Ministry of Natural Resources here, agreed, noting the rule curve changes for Namakan would mean the end of the “most damaging effects on the aquatic ecosystems there” caused by the previous 10-foot drop in water levels over the winter there.
But the improvements on Rainy Lake would be negligible, if any, he said.
“The very small late summer draw down may help fall spawners,” Darby added, but stressed it does nothing for walleye and northern spawning.
The IJC announced yesterday afternoon it would issue a draft supplementary order for the water levels and outflows of both Rainy Lake and Namakan as recommended by the International Rainy Lake Board of Control in its Oct. 26 report, which will take effect Jan. 6, 2000.
The order would see the rule curves on Rainy Lake stay the same as the ones set in 1970 but with a slightly wider band during the spring refill period and a modest draw down in the late summer and fall.
This was contrary to the request from the international steering committee.
But the IJC did accept the steering committee’s recommendation for Namakan, which called for higher water levels in the spring, with the modification of a wider band during the spring refill period.
One change from the IRLBC’s draft report Darby was glad to see was the removal of the recommendation to give dam operators sole discretion on outflow levels so long as they stayed within the rule curve band, something he called a “dangerous precedent.”
Instead, dam operators must strive to keep the lake levels in the middle of the band, unless otherwise instructed by the IRLBC.
But this would negate the U.S. Federal Energy Regulation Commission’s previous requirement on running to the top of the rule curve the first 30 days after ice-out, Radomski noted.
“By putting it in the middle of the band, we’re going to lose the benefit we had with the higher spring levels,” he explained.
“Those benefits we’ve seen in the last seven years will largely be lost,” Darby agreed, and may even prove to be a spawning hindrance.
Meanwhile, it’s not just those on the lake who have concerns. Jennifer Mercer, watershed program co-ordinator for Rainy River First Nation, said the IJC order still fails to address the effects of the rule curves on Rainy River.
“[Rainy River] is a very important water body,” Mercer stressed. “It’s not just a connecting channel between two big lakes.”
Mercer noted both the MNR and DNR were working with the band to do an in-stream flow, incremental method study, coming up with a hydrograph of the Rainy River to see how daily fluctuations, also called “peaking,” affect the river and the life it supports.
Although the study will take several years to complete, Mercer noted a balanced watershed program addressing Namakan to Lake of the Woods should be developed to address the needs of all four water bodies.
“We’re not accepting what the IJC is putting in place,” she said. “We’re looking at what would be the best case scenario [for all].”
The IJC has given the public until Jan. 4 to comment on its supplementary order before it finalizes things. While Darby and Radomski noted their arguments have been raised in the past, the steering committee likely will make one last plea to have things changed on Rainy Lake.
“This might be beating a dead horse but we want to make our points known,” Radomski said. “We’re pleased they accepted our rationale on Namakan but we wish they would have take that to Rainy Lake as well.”