Some Potential Impacts of Conditions in
the Saint Clair River
on NYPA Relicensing, Lake Erie, and the Niagara River
P.O. Box 299
St. Louis, MO
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
has a depth of 9 feet (2.7 meters).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
(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
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.
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
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
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.
Evaluation of Water Levels
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.
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.
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.
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.
Water Levels - Diversion and Dredging
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
drop in water levels be expected?
Levels and the NYPA
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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?
Proper Lake Levels: Possible Effects on Power
Generation and Tourism
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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
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:
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
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.