A public information session meeting held Saturday morning in Pembroke gave area residents affected by the 2019 spring flood a chance to air their frustrations but didn’t provide the answers most were looking for. While they may now better understand how the Ottawa River is managed and also the extraordinary weather that led to this spring’s flooding, what most wanted to hear was what officials were going to do to prevent such a disaster from happening again. And there were no concrete answers to that question beyond the provincial government’s previously announced flooding task force to look into it.From young families flooded out of their homes to retired seniors with damaged cottages, just under 200 people came from throughout the upper portion of the Ottawa River watershed – from above the dam at Des Joachims, to below the dam at Chenaux – to attend the meeting held at the Pembroke and Area Community Centre. The meeting was chaired by Laurentian Valley Mayor Steve Bennett. The panel consisted of Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry Minister, MPP John Yakabuski, Pembroke Mayor Mike LeMay, representatives of the Ottawa River Regulation Secretariat, Ontario Power Generation, Ottawa River Power Corporation, Pembroke District Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing that administers disaster assistance funding programs.Lasting nearly two and a half hours in length, the public meeting was cordial for the most part, with frustrations of residents expressed as an expletive flaring a handful of times. Regardless, based on the applause to questions asked and points raised by members of the public during the question and answer portion of the meeting, it is safe to say most were not happy with the answers they were hearing from the Ottawa River Regulating Secretariat and Ontario Power Generation (OPG).The meeting began with an introduction by Laurentian Valley Mayor Steve Bennett, followed by a roughly half hour presentation by the Secretariat, and a second one by OPG. The presentations detailed some historic data on spring freshet water levels and flows on the Ottawa River, along with explaining the theory that goes into managing the reservoirs and also the electricity generating dams along the length of the river.
Just under 200 people crowded into the activity room at the Pembroke and Area Community Centre Saturday morning for the first of four local public information sessions for flood-affected property owners. This meeting was for residents of Head, Clara and Maria, Laurnetian Hills, Deep River, Petawawa, Laurentian Valley and Pembroke. Meetings were also held throughout the weekend in Eganville, Westmeath and Arnprior.
Anthony Dixon / Pembroke Observer and News /
Manon Lalonde, executive engineer with the Secretariat, told everyone that there are 13 principal reservoirs on the Ottawa River, four operated by Hydro Quebec, five by the Quebec Environment Ministry, three by Ontario Power Generation and one by public works Canada. Of the 13, six are considered ‘run of the river’ dams for generating electricity and have limited ability to store runoff. The main reservoir dams are in the north of the watershed. She said of the massive Ottawa River drainage area, 40 per cent of the land drains to a reservoir leaving the majority 60 per cent of the basin uncontrolled with no water storage capacity.Michael Sarich, senior water resources engineer with the Secretariat told those at the meeting of this year’s perfect storm scenario that resulted in the extensive flooding along the majority of the Ottawa River in Renfrew County in April and May. He said the winter of 2018-19 featured well above average amounts of snow that melted late and melted fast, then during the melt the region experienced further record setting amounts of precipitation, all leading to unprecedented water levels and flows on the Ottawa River and its tributaries. Once the few main reservoir dams in the north were full, dam operators had no choice but to let water pass through the dam at the same rate it was entering it. So, he said, the reservoirs were not “let go (completely)” as some residents suggested, but they were maxed and they did have to let water pass through.“Reservoir operators went above what they would normally store, but they can only store so much safely,” he said.Shaun Hinds, OPG’s vice president of Eastern Operations, said the big reservoir at Temiskaming was held and the water level behind it allowed to rise as long as possible.“We hoped inflows would slow but they did not come down, they came up and were exceeding design limits of the dam so the operator had to pass inflows,” he explained.Don Ferko, a technical officer with OPG, said neither the dam at Chenaux, downstream from Laurentian Valley and Westmeath, areas hit particularly hard by flooding, nor the dam at Des Joachims (Swisha) have any water storage ability that would have made a difference this spring. He told the group that had any more water been stored upstream behind the Des Joachims dam above Deep River, the flooding in Mattawa would’ve been made 40 per cent worse.“It’s a balancing act,” he said.In the Whitewater and Laurentian Valley area, he explained, the Rocher Fendu rapids on the east side of Whitewater Region are a natural constriction of the waterway that can only allow so much water to pass at a time. This natural bottleneck is above the dam at Chenaux In the question and answer portion of the meeting, Whitewater resident Dave Henderson said what he was hearing from the speakers was that was that there was nothing more they could’ve done, and that there is not enough reservoir capacity on the Ottawa River. What he wanted to hear was more of a sense of “urgency” from government and the operators in coming up with a plan to further mitigate future flooding, beyond maintaining the status quo.“Floods may have happened several times over the last 100 years, but now it’s happened two times in three years, and I want to see a sense of urgency in looking into making some difficult decisions,” Henderson said. He and several other residents expressed that it was time to look at increasing reservoir capacity.While not ruling it out, Yakabuski cautioned that doing so would be a long, difficult and expensive process – with extensive consultation with multiple stakeholders needed, and numerous studies. There would also likely be environment concerns in flooding big portions of land, and to flood it, that land would have to be purchased.Yakabuski noted that back in early May, Premier Doug Ford announced a flooding task force in response to this spring’s flooding whose mandate is to consult with municipalities and other stakeholders on how to better plan for flooding and reduce the impacts of it.MRC Pontiac Warden Jane Toller who attended the meeting as a member of the public, did rise to speak during the question and answer portion of the meeting, taking the opportunity to emphasize the importance of all of the stakeholders including the Ontario government, Quebec government and the federal government all working together to come up with solutions for residents along the river. Her idea that it was time to reassess management of the Ottawa River using the new patterns of weather being experienced was met with enthusiastic applause from the large audience. She also recommended changes to provincial disaster assistance programs that currently do not help cottage owners, just permanent home owners. She said it was unfair to discriminate against cottage owners as they pay taxes too.“Will there be an examination of the current way the river is managed,” she said, adding she believed it was time to look at developing more capacity to store water and a better way to regulate flow to eliminate flooding.Toller also said the MRC Pontiac Regional Council has approved requesting that the Federal and Provincial governments conduct a truly independent technical review of the existing dam and reservoir infrastructure in the Ottawa River watershed; a truly independent review of the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board mandate, governance model, operating procedures and policies; and a truly independent study into the feasibility of adding reservoir capacity in the Ottawa River watershed.Mayor Bennett added that Laurentian Valley council and Pembroke council would both be looking at endorsing Pontiac County’s requests and that it would also be brought to Renfrew County Council to endorse as well.During the Q&A portion, over a dozen residents shared their stories of frustration, with a few expressing at the microphone they felt water levels were higher than usual during the winter, when the dam operators generally ‘draw down’ water levels. Ferko explained this is done to create extra storage capacity for the spring runoff. When residents insisted that in their opinion the levels weren’t drawn down as far as other years, Ferko responded that the levels were drawn down in the winter as they are every year.The meeting was brought to a close when the panel had to move on to its second public flood information session meeting of the day.The last resident at the mic ended with, “Well I call bullsh*t.”The Pembroke meeting was the first of four being held throughout the County of Renfrew. The Pembroke meeting was followed later in the day by one in Eganville, then on Sunday, meetings were held in Westmeath and Arnprior.ADixon@postmedia.com