Ottawa Flooding: our river, our selves

Posted 9.1 5.19

SHAWVILLE, QC | The flooding of 2019 is not over -- we are still dealing with its aftermath. One issue is the province's flood-plain identification plan with its preliminary mapping and building restrictions. These questions cover the province, wherever flooding occurred.

A second topic, specific to the Ottawa River watershed -- our home -- is still very active, with plenty of opinion on how the dams and over-flows should be (or not) regulated to avoid the varying water levels above and below dams, up- and downstream. But as eager as the experts are to launch into 'what should have been done' along the Ottawa's 1,271 km length, it would be worth first considering several factors about our river system.

First, we ought to acknowledge that the Ottawa River is a complex system, in a technical sense. Complexity refers to multiple inputs at varying times, all affecting the others, increasing one factor and dampening the effects of others. Cause-and-effect relationships are not simple, and predictability is extremely difficult.

The river itself is immense, equivalent to the Fraser or Rio Grande, draining 56,500 square miles across many geographical and weather situations, similar to central Europe's Elbe.

The Ottawa is fed by 16 large rivers -- some feeding high volumes just as others are declining. Its territory is so vast that whereas the winter snow pack may not be melting in some areas, downstream the snow melt has passed. It rains heavily across one vast area, whereas another is dry. Many of the feeder rivers have their own dam networks which must be coordinated with control of the entire watershed. Flood season can last over two months. Talk about a three-body problem -- this is a many-body problem!

Plus, the river system is a major hydro-electric producer (13 big dams), and that function must be maintained, even during crisis periods. Here is an annual challenge needing something as powerful as Artificial Intelligence for its coordination, and we might be surprised to learn how much of the river's flow is already controlled by algorithms.

Another group of considerations includes the probable effects of increasing climate change (a hyper-complex system itself). Thus we ought to assume flooding will re-occur, and at more frequent intervals. We've just had two major floods in three years, separated by equally unheard-of tornadoes. Nothing simple at work here.

Expensive, too -- climate changes will create immense damage, expense, loss of life, mobility, and productivity, plus community stress and personal tragedies here. Wouldn't it be wise to spend more time and money preparing -- at a scale commensurate with the likely expenses of continued flooding? How much will the benefits of a changing climate contribute?

These is a lot of research already done and underway -- shock-absorbing shoreline enhancement (plenty of experimental data here, given the shore and coastline damage caused by hurricanes to the south). Much of this is low-tech -- overflow control and surplus storage capacity all along the river, as compared to new dams, channels, or more expensive infrastructure.

For example, the utilization of quarries, gravel pits, swamps and bogs, old channels, and low pastureland to take flooding water from the main channel. While not as expensive as more interventionist strategies -- such as the American TVA dam network -- creating these temporary reservoirs would radically alter the geography of the Ottawa Valley.

We are awaiting the results of several inquiries into the flooding of 2017 and 2019 and the role the dams may have played in compounding or mitigating the flood's effects. Effecting a comprehensive plan will not be speedy. And this is but one challenge.

Other problems are serious and remain unclaimed, and that's dangerous. For example, CNL a private-consortium, including SNC Lavalin, is proposing a mega dump for radioactive waste within a kilometre of the Ottawa River, drained by a creek flowing directly to the Ottawa.

Why, during a federal election, is this bound-to-fail project (with a 100,000 years-plus life expectancy, its disaster-probability runs off the charts) being avoided by the Liberal / Conservative candidates, whose governments are today complicit in this plan?

Rather than trying to assign blame for the 2017-19 flood damage, shouldn't we be attempting to prevent its repeat -- and not add even more serious, irreparable damage?


Copyright © 2019 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles9.15.19