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RIVERS ON THE RUN - The Springbank Dam Story
According to International Rivers, a non-profit, environmental organization based in California, the dam industry had choked more than half of the Earth's major rivers with some 50,000 large dams by the end of the 20th century. The consequences of this massive engineering program have been devastating. The world's large dams have wiped out species; flooded huge areas of wetlands, forests and farmlands; and displaced tens of millions of people.
While large dams have garnered most of the opposition around the world, small dams are equally harmful to rivers. They create an unnatural barrier preventing aquatic life from moving freely up and down stream. The decreased flow of water causes sediment and nutrients to build up and water temperatures to increase, promoting bacteria and algae growth. Many of Canada's thousands of dams are also reaching an age where they're breaking down; in Ontario, the problem of old dams is compounded by the proliferation of new small run of the river power projects.
"There are very few rivers that are not at risk - dams are everywhere except for some rivers in the far north. At the moment, all rivers are at risk because the provincial government just had 40 waterpower applications on their last waterpower FIT 4 run - under 500 kW. The Large Renewable Procurement run will be announced in March, so things aren't slowing down, instead they're ramping up," says Linda Heron, Chair and Chief Executive Officer Ontario River Alliance (ORA).
A report entitled Hydro Impacts 101: The Trade-offs published by ORA in January states that:
"While the effects of large hydro projects have been well known and documented since their widespread construction began in the early 1900s, small hydro projects involve many of the same impacts per unit of power generated and, cumulatively, the environmental degradation can exceed that of large hydro projects. Small hydro, like large hydro projects, will also alter the river's flow regime and can have significant impacts on the aquatic environment, as flow is a major determinant of a river's ecological characteristics and its aquatic biodiversity."
The group lists 74 Ontario rivers that are at risk on its website. Because of the Springbank Dam, the Thames river is among them. It is one of two dams, along with Eramosa Dam in Eden Mills, that ORA is working to have decommissioned.
(Click to view an interactive map).
Springbank Dam has also become the focus of an ongoing controversy which has gathered steam with WWF-Canada and the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation adding their voice to the growing opposition to the dam's reconstruction, which was halted in 2008 after a gate malfunction led the city to sue the contractor.
The dam has spanned the Thames River in one form or another since the 1870s and has long been a landmark in London. The original dam was built to provide water power for pumping to a water reservoir; the current dam was built in 1929 to create a local water supply reservoir and provide recreational opportunities.
When studies in 2000 and 2002 recommended that the dam be rehabilitated to meet provincial dam safety requirements and repair erosion protection that was damaged in a flood in July 2000, an environmental assessment had to be done to proceed.
In December 2003 the Upper Thames Conservation Authority (UTRCA), as the dam operator for the City of London, which owns the structure, completed the environmental assessment (EA) on the dam through a private consultant, Acres International. While dam decommissioning emerged as one of four options, it was rejected in favour of rehabilitation.
Yet, there is every indication within the assessment that ecological issues regarding the quality of water in the river were alarming even back then, a deterioration that the presence of a dam would only exacerbate.
The EA, which is posted on the city of London's website, states:
"According to the 2001 Upper Thames River Watershed Report Card (UTRCA, 2001), surface water quality within the Forks watershed (i.e., Springbank Dam upstream to the base of Fanshawe Dam) is poor, with an overall grade of D (on an A to E scale, with A being the best). The report indicates that the measured surface water quality metrics show a significant decline as water flows through the Forks area."
The document also states:
"The phosphorus concentration, based on a 10-yr average (1990 to 2000), was found to be 0.18 mg/L, six times higher than the Provincial Water Quality Objective of 0.03 mg/L, identified to eliminate excessive plant growth in rivers and streams (MOEE, 1994). UTRCA indicates that the high phosphorus concentrations recorded through this section of the river suggest inputs of materials such as fertilizers, eroded soils, spills and other effluent."
"Ten years (1990 to 2000) of monitoring has indicated average fecal coliform bacterial concentrations of 690 organisms per 100 mL, which is nearly seven times the allowable amount for recreational swimming. Average bacterial concentrations throughout the Upper Thames River watershed over this same time period were 304 organisms per 100 mL. "
"During the Class EA process, the UTRCA met with representatives from several interested stakeholder groups that included the London Canoe Club, the London Rowing Club, the Tri-County Bass and the Thames River Anglers. The purpose of the meetings was to provide general study information, answer questions and identify issues and concerns. Comments raised during the meetings are summarized in Appendix C."
What their concerns were is not known since Appendix C is nowhere to be found. However the Thames River Anglers are clearly in favour of decommissioning the Springbank on their website today.
Concerns for fisheries, nutrients and blue-green algae proliferation are hardly new. Why did it take until now for opposition to the Springbank Dam to come to bear on its rehabilitation?
"The community interests were different then," says Ian Wilcox, General Manager, Upper Thames River Conservation Agency. "In my recollection, the groups that took part in the public consultation were the rowers and canoers. There was no push for decommissioning the dam at the time".
Renewed interest in the Springbank Dam can be attributed more specifically to the proliferation of blue-gree algae in Lake Erie in recent years.
"WWF's Northern Lake Erie Watershed Report Card indicate that the Thames River has poor water quality because phosphorous levels measured at many sites along the river regularly exceeded provincial water quality guidelines," says Elizabeth Hendriks, Vice President, Freshwater, WWF-Canada.
"The issue is gaining traction because algae blooms in Lake Erie are getting worse and government has committed to doing something about it. The government of Ontario has committed to the newly signed Ontario-Michigan-Ohio agreement to reduce P loading into the Western Basin of Lake Erie by 40 per cent. It is also a major priority action as a result of the renewed Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement," she says.
So the question today is will the health of the Thames River and utimately Lake Erie sway the debate towards decommisioning or will the recreation and tourism industry win the day is as they did in 2003?
"Our job is to make sure the city has all the information they need to make the rigth decision. That being said, conditions have changed. The river has noticeably healed itself since the dam was left open in 2008 allowing the water to flow freely. A public consultation meeting has been scheduled for March 8 and there is way more opposition to completing the dam rehabilittion than there was in 2003," says UTRCA's Wilcox.
Ontario Waterpower Association Response
I read with interest your recent article initially focused on the public discussion of the future of the Springbank Dam then extended to include some opinion on small hydro. It is indeed unfortunate that the organization quoted in the article has chosen to take a generalized approach to the consideration of environmental impacts and benefits, and absent the inclusion of social and economic factors that collectively comprise the basis of ecological sustainability. All new waterpower development in Ontario is planned through the Environmental Assessment process – a process that is designed to consider the breadth of both positive and negative impacts of the proposed project. With respect to the FIT projects mentioned, the vast majority of these small hydro opportunities can be expected to take place at existing publically owned infrastructure – not only generating decentralized renewable energy, but also with the potential to provide social and environmental improvements.
Ontario's initial prosperity was built on hydroelectricity. Until the early 1950's all of our electricity came from falling water and it remains the province's primary source of renewable energy. Yes, we must look at all projects context specifically, but blanket propositions of “good or bad” are misguided.
Paul Norris, President
Ontario Waterpower Association