Some Potential Impacts of Conditions in the Saint Clair River
 on NYPA Relicensing, Lake Erie, and the Niagara River

P. M. Eckel

Missouri Botanical Garden

Res Botanica

April 31, 2005

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Some Potential Impacts of Conditions in the Saint Clair River

on NYPA Relicensing, Lake Erie, and the Niagara River


P. M. Eckel

Missouri Botanical Garden

P.O. Box 299

St. Louis, MO 63166-0299



Abstract: The relationship between volume of water flowing into the Niagara River (New York and Ontario) and the augmented flow of water through the Saint Clair River (Michigan and Ontario) is discussed. A link between dredging in the Saint Clair and initiation of hydroelectric power generation at Niagara in 1961 and 1962 is suggested. The impact of lowered lake levels in Lakes Michigan and Huron as well as Georgian Bay, Ontario, due to increased flow through the Saint Clair River, should be a factor in determining the impact of power generation downstream at Niagara on upstream lake communities. Problems downstream, if natural upper lake levels were restored, are considered.



When the Alternative Licensing Process (ALP) began in Niagara Falls, in 2002, it was important that the various stakeholders were identified as those who had a critical interest in the issues being raised regarding the impact of New York Power Authority (NYPA) operations on their lives, property, welfare, rights, and so on. Those stakeholders were to become part of the process of evaluating conditions under which the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) would grant a new license to NYPA to generate hydroelectric power on the Niagara River. It seemed apparent as the summer progressed, and public hearings proceeded, that most of the stakeholders were located along the Niagara River, and that perhaps even the City of Buffalo was too far upstream from the power intakes and tailrace facilities constituting the main center of power plant operations to be considered a stakeholder.


However as time went on, occasional representatives from other areas affected by operations were included, even as far away as the City of Cleveland. Other areas affected by the distribution of power generated at Niagara Falls, New York included, for instance, areas that generated their own power as a rival to the Authority's operations, considering issues involving the pricing of the power generated, and other interesting technical and legal topics.



I recall, during the beginnings of the stakeholder meetings, approaching one of the NYPA representatives regarding the City of Chicago as a potential stakeholder. Now, Chicago is located far upstream at the bottom (southern end) of Lake Michigan and at first one might ask what Chicago has to do with Niagara? When Robert Moses was organizing the Niagara Power project, during the 1950's or perhaps early 1960's, I recall, a booklet was published by the Authority, being written by Robert Moses. The booklet told how the Supreme Court of the United States, at the request of New York State, put an injunction on the City of Chicago with regard to the diversion of waters from Lake Michigan into the Mississippi River through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Apparently enough water could be diverted through this canal to affect the amount of water available upstream in the Niagara River for power generation. Such an effect would also influence the available water for Ontario Hydro, the Ontario, Canada, equivalent of NYPA diverting water from the Niagara River to produce hydroelectric power.


That the City of Chicago might be considered a stakeholder in the relicensing process is predicated also on the fact that since at least the 1980's there has been legal restraint on the communities along Lake Michigan with regard to the amount of water they can draw from the lake for municipal purposes. These included large cities in addition to Chicago, in adjoining states, such cities as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, South Bend, Indiana, Grand Rapids and Green Bay, Michigan not to mention large inland municipalities that doubtless require water out of the Great Lakes themselves or their tributaries. Whether these restrictions derive from the original injunction by Robert Moses, or have to do with local, i.e. Lake Michigan, issues is a question, yet Chicago had to be mindful of the level of Lake Michigan when the Power Authority was under construction during the 1950's and 1960's.


I remember asking during the scoping sessions at Niagara Falls in early 2002 whether Chicago could be considered a stake holder in the relicensing process due to this restriction on that city's use of its Ship Canal. I was told by NYPA personnel that enough water was flowing through the Saint Clair River to provide all the hydroelectric power needs of Niagara, and so upstream communities influenced by the legislation described in the pamphlet were not affected by operation of the NYPA power plant at Niagara.


Demand for Power

Power generated in the Niagara-Massena, New York, and associated plants in Ontario feed electric power into the northeastern United States, which is the largest market for energy in the world, at least during the winter months from October through April. On January 25 of 2005, Reuters news agency published an article: "East Coast Power Utilities Meet Record Demand" to heat homes and businesses, including record consumption from Consolidated Edison Co. of New York Inc., Dominion Resources Inc. in Virginia and North Carolina, and Progress Energy Carolinas in both Carolina States, indicating that more than ever there is a critical dependency on energy resources in these regions.


The demand for energy in these states is a major factor in the price of oil for the rest of the United States, and any energy that can be purchased from North American sources is strategically important, especially in the present time. The Province of Ontario, furthermore, and probably the rest of eastern Canada, does not appear to have any other appreciable sovereign source of power other than its hydroelectric resources - this is a critical strategic factor in the Dominion and Provincial political relations with the United States. Both Ontario and New York find the power generated in the Niagara-Massena areas vital to their economic and political interests.


Yet these are not the only sovereign entities utilizing the Great Lakes Watershed, there are other states and their governors with vital hydrological interests along this water system.


Great Lakes Watersheds

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal has the potential to disrupt water levels in Lake Michigan as it is a 30-mile construction, capturing the waters of the Chicago River, formerly a feeder into Lake Michigan, which now has its direction reversed and is flowing westward into the Des Plaines and Illinois rivers into the Mississippi. The Canal, and hence the Chicago River, is now considered a part of the Mississippi River drainage system, and, as the Canal was acquired by the United States Government in 1930, is probably operated by the Army Corps of Engineers.


The Canal has a depth of 9 feet (2.7 meters).


So the City of Chicago is arguably a stakeholder in the NYPA relicensing process because, for the sake of the Authority, an injunction was put on the City not to divert water away from Lake Michigan into the Mississippi watershed, which, in several areas, may be only 30 miles away from that of the Great Lakes, if it would appreciably lower the level of Lake Michigan.


In both the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds the level of water useful for hydroelectric power and navigation is in decline. The gambling boats on the Mississippi at Saint Louis, for example, must stay moored to their landings due to treacherous conditions of low water. During a drought in the latter half of the 1980's, critically low water levels in the Mississippi aroused demands to open the Chicago Canal and allow Lake Michigan water to charge the Mississippi sufficient to facilitate shipping on the Mississippi, but especially on the Illinois Waterway, as the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal is a vital link from Great Lakes ports including Chicago down to the Mississippi and the port of New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico.


Shipping was disrupted in Illinois and perhaps on the Mississippi River it would seem, due to the old injunction that Chicago must not divert additional flow from Lake Michigan, and the reason was that amplitude of water in the upper lakes was critical for hydroelectric power generation downstream.


Low Lake Levels and Niagara

But before low Lake levels in Lake Michigan could have an effect at the Niagara generating plants, water from this lake has to go through the Straits of Mackinac into Lake Huron. Low lake waters in Lake Michigan would affect the levels in Lake Huron whose waters feed into the shallowest of the five Great Lakes:  that of Lake Erie. Inflow of water from Lake Superior into Lake Huron through the Sault Saint Marie and the Saint Mary's River is apparently not as much of an issue as the water coming from Lake Michigan, which is in great demand from the communities on its shores.


The drought of the 1980's as well as recent years was associated with a restriction on communities surrounding Lake Michigan as to diversion for municipal water use, especially during the summer months. There appears to be a very significant population affected by restrictions on the level of Lake Michigan.


The Niagara River, as so many of the rivers connecting the Lakes, such as the Detroit, Saint Mary's, Saint Clair and the Saint Lawrence Rivers are actually all straits (the French word for which is 'detroit'). Their upstream ends receive the outflow of a lake rather than form a network of tributary streams with ever decreasing volume with distance from the main stem. The strait of Niagara joins the Lakes of Erie and Ontario. Its water volume derives from Lake Erie and that volume is a natural limit on the amount of hydroelectric power that can be derived at Niagara from the force of the water in its descent to sea level.


The level of Lake Erie water is controlled at its eastern end by an underwater calcareous ridge that runs perpendicular to the course of the Niagara River. This ridge is the Onondaga Escarpment, one of several east-west trending escarpments, lying between the Portage Escarpment to the south, and the Niagara Escarpment to the north. The Onondaga Escarpment runs under the International Peace Bridge (Buffalo, New York and Fort Erie, Ontario). During the drought in the 1980's, there was talk of blasting a gap in this ridge to permit Niagara River levels to be maintained. Presumably, had this excavation been carried out, a special gate to enhance flow into the Niagara River during periods of low Lake Erie levels would have been installed.


It must take an act of the imagination to visualize the effect on Lake Erie that such a loss of water would entail around its coastline during a period of drought. The shallowest of the lakes (its mean depth is 90 feet), the 30-foot contour-line for the periphery of the lake is as far as one mile offshore. Its area of 9,940 square miles is arranged in an east-west line 241 miles long entirely, as Lakes Ontario and Superior, along the trend of the prevailing westerlies. This orientation would, perhaps, intensify the evaporation rate because the waters of the Lake would heat up more rapidly that those of the other, deeper bodies of water.


Note that there are major communities located around the periphery of Lake Erie: in the United States the cities of Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Toledo and a way up the Detroit River is Detroit with Windsor on the Canadian shore in addition to a number of other communities with important ties to Lake Erie shipping, including Conneaut, Ashtabula, Painesville, Lorain, Huron and Sandusky in Ohio. Silting at the shallow mouths of the tributary rivers into Lake Erie has been a historic problem for all these communities.


Lowering the level of Lake Erie water by opening a channel in the bedrock under the Peace Bridge at Buffalo, New York would probably be in the interest of maintaining hydroelectric power capacity by stabilizing the vital volume of water in the Niagara River. It would also keep the level of water downstream in Lake Ontario higher, which in turn would improve water levels throughout the Saint Lawrence Seaway system with its hydroelectric power plants along that route, in addition to stabilizing shipping channel depths.


A loss of water depth in all the lakes is exacerbated by an increase in average mean temperature throughout North America, making years of drought a much more critical impact on power and transportation systems, not to mention municipal demands on lake water.


Critical Evaluation of Water Levels

A number of studies have been presented by the Power Authority on the Niagara River, and published on the Internet, to assess various questions put by the general public since 2002 during the Relicensing process. The results of a great number of such studies are based on measurements having to do with water levels and water level fluctuations in the Niagara River. There are many critical natural habitats along this river, affected by water level fluctuations, such as Buckhorn Island Wilderness Area where millions of dollars have recently been spent to dredge and dam areas of it to ensure some water presence in what is now a drying marsh, but was recently an open body of water.


Other natural areas, such as Tifft Farm Nature Preserve, just south of Buffalo, an IBA (Important Bird Area) designated by the National Audubon Society and maintained as the largest marsh in the eastern part of Lake Erie, has suffered desiccation due to lowering water levels in Lake Erie, such that water has to be pumped into its wetland areas in order to maintain the ecosystem as a wetland.


Other evidence of ecological response to lowered water levels in the Niagara River include the establishment of islands of emergent vegetation all along its length, filled with Typha (Cattail), Rushes, and Sagittaria with an attendant increase in fish and bird life on both sides of the river, in Ontario and New York.


It would seem that water levels in this area are critical to the natural functioning of the Niagara River as well as ensuring adequate supplies of water for the diversion regimes of both NYPA and the corresponding Canadian hydroelectric facility.


Determining Water Levels - Diversion and Dredging

Water levels in the Niagara River are critically determined by treaty designations between Ontario and New York, as well as by diversions by NYPA and Ontario Hydro, by the variations in flow from Lake Erie, and by regional and long-term precipitation patterns, wind effects and other local factors.


Many of the Relicensing reports based on recent studies discuss Niagara water level impacts by "project operations." The definition of "project," as in "power project" includes diversion effects and management policies on lands specifically owned by the Power Authority. There does not seem to be much attention paid to the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers has made significant alterations to the bed of the Niagara River in its eastern portion, the Tonawanda Channel that flows around the east side of Grand Island, specifically to serve the operations of the power project. There is excavation of the riverbed to a depth of 19.5 feet from around the Black Rock Canal area in the City of Buffalo north to the turning basin in the stream bed just north of Tonawanda Island. Upstream from the Turning Basin there is a channel, the "Niagara River Channel", dredged to a depth of 12 feet whose terminus is a deeply excavated basin before the Power Plant Intakes above the Niagara Cataracts. This basin is 18 to 19  feet on the periphery and plunges to a depth of 30 feet just before the intake structures. Just downstream from the 18 foot depth of the excavated basin, the river bed  is only 7-8 feet (to 10 feet in places). River depths in the upstream part of the Tonawanda Channel are around seven to nine feet and fluctuate.


"Project" apparently also includes diversion structures, weirs, built into the Niagara River just above the inlet into the old Burntship Bay that seem to exist to shift water volume to the American (Tonawanda) channel from the Canadian (Chippewa) channel of the Niagara River. The "Project" as defined probably should include the presence and effect of these weirs as well as the riverbed excavations made by the US Army Corps. The water in the Grass Island Pool, which determines so much of the volume of water that is allowed to be diverted by both New York and Ontario interests, seems to be the water out of which Ontario diverts its water both through intakes just upstream from the Canadian (Horseshoe) Falls as well as the Queenston Chippawa Power Canal out of the Welland River. NYPA appears to divert its water upstream of the Pool in the upstream reaches of the Tonawanda Channel.


Not many people seem to be aware that the western channel of the Niagara River is almost wholly within the territory of the Dominion of Canada, the international boundary being not far from the American shore (Grand Island in New York State). It is probable that Canada then has title to all of the water in this channel. From the depth measurements published in the NOAA Coast Survey map of the Niagara River, it is on average several feet deeper than that of the Tonawanda, or American channel of the River and is undredged. The river bed upstream of the Falls, where the two channels conflate is remarkably shallow, with zones of one to two feet in depth above the river bed, and with depths of only two to five feet where the cascades develop just upstream from Goat Island, the body that separates the two cataracts. The water is so shallow here that extensive engineering works have been erected to divert water from the Canadian side of the river, within the boundary of Canada, into the shallower channel in American waters, where water flows over the American Falls. The south side of Goat Island is experiencing bedrock exposure with a strong effect on natural vegetation in the form of extensive development of exotic wetland species populations. Bedrock threatens to be exposed also in the shallows on the southern end of Grand Island, with an imminent land or at least shallow water connection of Strawberry and Motor (Pirate) Islands to Grand Island with decreasing water levels.


The loss of one or two feet of water level in the Niagara River could have an array of profound impacts on conditions along the Niagara River, not to mention the problems involved with a possible loss of three feet in depth. The compromising effects of such an occurrence could seriously effect the hydroelectric plants on both sides of the river at Niagara, and also probably far downstream on the hydroelectric plants along the Saint Lawrence River.


Can this drop in water levels be expected?


Water Levels and the NYPA

If we return to the legal limits on the city of Chicago to divert water out of Lake Michigan into its Sanitary and Ship Canal during the 1950's or early 1960's, one can get some idea how sensitive the New York Power Authority, such as it was then, was to water level fluctuations in the upper Great Lakes.


According to the NYPA relicensing Web site, in 1957, the United States Congress passed the Niagara Redevelopment Act "directing the Federal Power Commission to issue the Power Authority a 50-year license to build and operate what was then the largest hydropower facility in the western world."


Construction of this facility, however, began in 1958. The Niagara Power Project first began producing electricity in 1961. It is curious and significant that in 1962 a commercial navigation channel was cut into the bed of the Saint Clair River.


The Saint Clair River is part of the strait system that connects Lake Huron to Lake Erie. It, like the Niagara River, is binational, shared by the United States and Canada. The South Channel, one of the seven mouths of the delta that drains the Saint Clair River into Lake Saint Clair, had a minimum depth of 27 feet in 1976, dredged to accommodate deep-draft ships as a link through the upper lakes downstream with the Saint Lawrence Seaway.


On ABC News for January 25 of 2005 it appears that a group of Canadian residents forming the Georgian Bay Association learned that this channel was in some places more than 60 feet deep, "twice as deep as needed for shipping." They had funded a $200,000 study conducted by W. F. Baird & Associates, an international coastal engineering firm, to determine whether the drop in water levels in Georgian Bay was due to natural causes or "something other than usual cyclical fluctuations."


The title of this news article referred to the lowering of water levels on both lakes Michigan and Huron, which were losing "vast amounts of water." The extraordinary new depth of the Saint Clair River was attributed to erosion gone out of control, apparently, from the 1962 South Channel dredging in the Saint Clair River delta. The author of the Baird report stated "We've got something very alarming going on here.... The recent riverbed erosion is unprecedented, even on a geologic time scale."


The response of the chief of hydrology of the Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit was a hesitation to attribute drops in upper lake levels due to the Saint Clair river situation, suggesting disparities may be due to "glacial rebound," that is, the rise in elevation of regions once depressed under the mass of ice during the last Ice Age and now rising, tending to expose the north shores of the lakes and tip water volume to the southern shores.


See also:


But even if that were true, if diversion of water out of the Chicago Sanitary Canal, a structure only nine feet deep, threatened the water volume available to the hydroelectric plants on the Niagara River and Saint Lawrence Seaway, one can only imagine what a bounty of water would be presently available due to the extraordinary depth of the shipping channel of the Saint Clair.


In addition to the issue that the levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron dropped with the dredging of the 1962 shipping canal on the Saint Clair, a decline of 8 to 13 inches during the past 15 years, is also the issue of the augmentation of the level of Lake Erie, which would benefit from such an inflow. Whatever the fall in lake levels might have been due to recent atmospheric thermal and precipitation dislocations in addition to the greater demand on lake waters from burgeoning communities that require its waters, this effect is obscured in Lake Erie by an artifact of engineering on the strait of Saint Clair. The present relatively high level of Lake Erie disguises the true impact of atmospheric changes and municipal diversions on its own shores.


The US Army Corps in January and Transport Canada, perhaps the Canadian equivalent of the federal agency, had not commented on the Baird report but the ABC article made it clear that continued dredging for Great Lakes navigation in the Saint Clair was part of "future prospects."


Any effort to halt dredging would be opposed by the Lake Carriers' Association who asserted that water levels be maintained "at certain depths to keep the cargo moving."


The happy consequence of moving shipping through an eroding and deepening channel under these circumstances is that enough water is flushed through Lake Erie to keep the hydroelectric power facilities of both New York and Ontario working at their standard capacity as the water reaches downstream to the Niagara River and on out into Lake Ontario. Even with the benefits of 60-foot-deep areas in the Saint Clair River, water levels are now dropping in the Niagara River and the eastern shore of Lake Erie near the city of Buffalo.


Is the maintenance of the depth of the South Channel of the Saint Clair river with its effects of lowering the levels of the upper lakes to be considered part of project operations on the Niagara River? If the upper lake levels were restored, would hydroelectric power generation be unacceptably curtailed at Niagara?


Restoring Proper Lake Levels: Possible Effects on Power Generation and Tourism

Were the states around Lake Michigan (Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan) and residents of municipalities in Ontario associated with the Great Lakes to demand that their water be restored to them, what would the fate of Lake Erie be? Lakes Michigan and Huron have greatest depth measures of 870 and 750 feet respectively, but Lake Erie is only 210 feet at its maximum (not average) depth. Its periphery contains broad shelves of water under 10 feet in depth. What would be the biological and municipal consequences were the current diversion of water through the Saint Clair modified so as to restore the proper levels to the two upper lakes that feed it?


Since depths in the Niagara River approaches to the cataracts are very shallow, how would restoring water levels in Lakes Huron and Michigan to their normal levels affect the scenery at Niagara Falls? The revenues expected from the development of scenery-dependent casinos in the vicinity of the cataracts and other government-sponsored or government-benefited impacts perhaps should also be shared with upstream residents in the form of tax remediation.


How would the Niagara River, which requires stable water levels to provide a uniform volume of electric power, be affected as well as the two hydroelectric facilities that are dependent upon it?


Should Ontario and New York compensate the upstream states and associated Canadian residents that are unwittingly providing the raw material for the generation of power for an energy market far outside of the regions of access by its citizens?


This does not appear to be an issue for New York State and the Province of Ontario for both have the requisite agencies to put in place and maintain the channels at issue, including the International Joint Commission (IJC), founded to resolve primarily hydroelectric and other issues affecting the boundaries between those two political entities. This appears to be an issue, not only for agencies such as the IJC, but also for the governors of the states named to resolve.


The Relicensing of the New York Power Authority, to be determined by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), perhaps should bring together all affected parties in the Great Lakes region to ensure an equitable distribution of the energy and other benefits of Great Lakes waters.


For a significant analysis of the issue of the Saint Clair river on Great Lakes hydrology, please see NOAA Technical Memorandum ERL GLERL-40, the "Effect of Channel changes in the St. Clair river since 1900" by Jan A. Derecki, Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, Ann Arbor, Michigan, February 1982, United Stated Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:



The role of augmented stream flow in the Saint Clair River between Lakes Huron and Erie in the preservation of hydroelectric power generation capacity downstream in the Niagara River and downstream of Lake Ontario has not been discussed in reports treating the lowered water levels in Lakes Huron and Michigan. Such augmentation enhances the economic viability of states and communities in the two lower lakes at the expense of those of the upper lakes in economic sectors outside of navigation, which benefits all. This augmentation touches on energy and the scenery-dependent casino-tourism economic sectors with a strong state-government and private industry partnership that benefits governing agencies and populations and markets only in the lower lakes. Such a disparity needs to be addressed at the federal level in both the United States and Canada involving the governors of the upper lakes states.  FERC needs to consider the interests of upstream states in considering the relicensing of the New York State Power Authority to generate hydroelectric power on the Niagara River.