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Rule curve change hopes to mitigate flooding risk

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Members of the Rainy Lake Conservancy gathered at La Place Rendez-Vous here Sunday afternoon for the group's annual general meeting.

They also heard from two speakers about wolves in Voyageurs National Park across the river and water levels on Rainy Lake.

Dr. Wayne Jenkinson is an engineering advisor with the International Joint Commission (IJC), created as a binational organization between the U.S. and Canada to “prevent and resolve disputes and pursue the common good between the two countries” and guided by the Boundary Waters Treaty.

Many large and small lakes and rivers flow between Canada and the U.S. Changes in water levels adversely can affect commercial uses, hydroelectric power generation, agriculture, fishing, and even recreational boating and shoreline property.

“That's our goal," said Dr. Jenkinson. "To make sure that we aren't fighting about water and that whatever decision we come up with, they are in the common good for both countries.”

Because of this, the IJC has established rule curve charts periodically over more than 100 years that determine how high or low the water levels should be at any given point within the year.

The focus of Dr. Jenkinson's presentation was to provide conservancy members with information regarding the new Rainy Lake and Namakan Lake rule curves for 2018 while also providing some background information on the IJC.

Controlling the water levels of Rainy Lake can be difficult because of how its depth and surrounding land masses change.

Dr. Jenkinson explained there are pinch points between Rainy Lake and the lower Rainy River: at Ranier Rapids, an area of shallow water off the point, and then the dam at the falls here.

“It's like squeezing water through a bottle on its side," he noted. ”If the bottle's full, you can get a lot of water through the neck of the bottle quite quickly.

"But as the water level drops, it's hard to move a lot of water through quickly.

“A pinch point is like squeezing a hose when you're trying to get water out of it,” Dr. Jenkinson added.

“What we find is that for certain situations, it really is hard to drain out of the bay quickly and this has exacerbated some of the problems we've had.”

The system can be hard to manage, especially in times of very high or very low water levels.

The aim of the rule curves, generally speaking, is to allow the lakes to fill in the spring and keep the water levels up for a number of interests, including recreational or hydropower, and then drop the levels in the winter.

Many members who attended Sunday's meeting said water levels were very important to them as most own waterfront properties and cabins, as well has have docks and boats.

Carl Lenander, a longtime RLC member who lives half the year in Fort Frances and the other half in Washington state, said he was within hours of losing his dock in 2014 and remembers a lot of the property damage caused that year by high water levels.

Greg and Debbie Anderson from Prince George, B.C., who have a cabin on Rainy Lake, said they also remember the high waters in 2014.

“We usually dock at the Five Mile but we couldn't use the Five Mile dock because it was underwater,” he recalled.

“So we had to go through the rapids—and that was quite a challenge being able to do that without the lift.”

They added the rapids were quite strong because the water was being let out.

“It was actually pretty dangerous," Debbie Anderson said. "It was like a scary ride or something.”

Dr. Jenkinson explained that what they've learned after areas of flooding and high water in 2014, and similar patterns across the transboundary, is higher levels of snow pack over the winter and an increase in spring storms wreak havoc on water levels and are difficult and risky to manage.

In 2015, the IJC appointed a board to study the 2000 rule curves and establish regulation alternatives while also evaluating those alternatives under a range of water level conditions.

Two years later, a final report was submitted to the IJC.

“It provides a comprehensive perspective not only from the experts, the agency, the people in the basin, but also board members and First Nations and tribes who have a stakeholder perspective,” Dr. Jenkinson remarked.

After recommendations, online comments, and public hearings, the IJC implemented a new order in March and the 2018 rule curves for Rainy and Namakan lakes went into effect Aug. 1.

The new 2018 Rainy Lake rule curve was designed to lower the water levels to about 336.7 metres in March and April to allow for snow run-off and spring storms.

A “high flood risk rule curve” also has been added to the chart, meaning the IJC can direct companies to lower water levels even further if there is an elevated flood risk in a particular year.

In addition to recreational or risk management, water levels control and affect the ecology of lakes and rivers, as well.

Invasive species such as cattails and algal blooms, population numbers of water and land animals such as muskrats or fish, and even wild rice crops are examples of what can be affected by high, low, or stagnant water.

“Once wild rice has started growing and is in a state where it's healthy, one of the worst things you could so is to raise the water levels,” said Dr. Jenkinson.

“You can invade the wild rice and you can destroy the crop.”

He cited other concerns, such as lowering water levels in winter after muskrats have built their homes, causing them to be farther from the water after hibernation and an easier target for prey.

To combat this, the 2018 rule curves include an implementation of operational guidelines.

“The operational guidelines are put in place to try and maximize the benefit within a rule curve for fish habitat, wild rice, any other concerns that have been identified in the watershed,” Dr. Jenkinson explained.

“We've agreed to regularly update it based on the concerns people may have, so, if you have a particular interest, if targeting a particular portion of the rule curve is beneficial for you or the people that you work with, you can speak to the water levels committee.”

Wolf predation

Thomas Gable, meanwhile, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, is studying wolf predation in Voyageurs National Park across the river.

While the research is ongoing, Gable presented some of what he and his team have found so far in trying to answer the question of how the population of beaver in an area impact the number of deer fawns and moose calves that wolves kill in the summertime.

The team started collaring wolves in what they call “The Greater Voyageurs Ecosystem” in 2012 and then moved onto intensive wolf research in 2015.

Gable said wolf predation in the summertime is very hard to track.

In the winter, wolf packs can be seen from an aerial view. But when spring arrives and the vegetation becomes thicker, this becomes almost impossible to do.

In addition, wolf pups change the dynamic of how a wolf pack operates, leading many members of the pack to hunt individually instead of together.

“When they are travelling around as individuals, they're mainly hunting and killing smaller prey," noted Gable. ”In this area, mainly beavers, deer fawns, and sometimes moose calves.

“However, our understanding of wolf predation on small prey is really poor.”

To overcome this, Gable and his team have used GPS technology to track the wolves in The Greater Voyageurs Ecosystem. But even with GPS, he said finding where wolves kill their prey is difficult.

This is because wolves consume their entire prey, whether that be a beaver, deer fawn, or moose calf, in a short period of time and leave virtually nothing behind.

“So if you can't observe wolves killing prey and you can't find where they're killing prey, it gets really hard to understand what's actually going on,” Gable remarked.

The best solution to find out what and where wolves were killing? Follow in their footsteps.

The team used their GPS system to isolate the locations where a wolf has been relatively stationary for at least 20 minutes.

From there, the team would hike through the park to the location and search for disrupted vegetation.

In these areas of trampled and broken vegetation, they would find pieces of beaver, deer fawn, moose, or other animals left behind from a wolf.

“A couple of pieces of bone and that's it," said Gable. "A wolf will reduce a whole fawn to that in about 20-30 minutes.”

From 2015-18, the team has searched 4,730 of these clusters, from the GPS information of 11 wolves.

Gable added they've completed between 7,000 and 8,000 miles of hiking.

“If you want to understand what wolves are doing in the summertime, you have to go follow them around and try to find where they're killing things,” he noted.

“That means a lot of time in the field.”

Voyageurs National Park is home to roughly 1,200 beaver lodges—one of the highest densities of beaver in North America.

It is because of this high population that Gable's research team is asking the question, “Does the number of beavers affect the number of deer and moose that wolves kill?”

Gable said the beaver population either is having a positive impact (i.e., wolves hunt more beavers, therefore, they don't hunt deer and moose) or negatively impact (i.e., the higher number of beaver means there is more food for wolves, causing the wolf population to grow, which leads to increased hunting of moose and deer).

In order to find the answer, the team will need to follow a lot more wolves, testing the data to see if wolves that kill more beaver also tend to leave deer and moose alone.

“Slowly but surely, year after year, we're peeling back these layers and starting to get a much better view of really what's going on in the secret lives of wolves during the summertime,” Gable said.

At the end of the presentations, the RLC members agreed on a new board of directors for 2018.

Returning members include Don Dickson, Ruth-Anne Miller, Barry Sampson, Joe Gauss, Mary Graves, Kim Roy, Donna Romyn, Joanna Loney, and Dave Siebert.

Paul Anderson, Carolyn Wallis, and Dale Callaghan all have terms expiring in August, but have agreed to let their names stand for another term.

Pam Cain is resigning from the board.

Three new nominations were put forward, including Sandi Tibbs from Fort Frances and Deborah and Kim Embretson from Fergus Falls, Mn.

All three were approved for the 2018 board.

The Rainy Lake Conservancy also is looking for new directors. Those interested can contact Loney at 271-1020.

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