Monday, July 30, 2007

Lake Ontario & St. Lawrence River after Peak Oil

The water levels in both Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River are maintained by a significant amount of man-made technology and infrastructure. Principally this is achieved through a series of three dams; the international Moses-Saunders Hydro-Electric Dam at Cornwall Ontario and Messina New York, the Long Sault Dam at Long Sault, Ontario which acts as a spillway when outflows are larger than the capacity of the power dam, and the Iroquois Ice Dam at Iroquois, Ontario which is principally used to help form a stable ice cover and regulate water levels at the power dam. There are also a number of additional dykes, levies and flood control channels and canals such as the 17km Beauharnois Canal which bypasses the Soulanges rapids and carries 84% of the water flow of the river to the Beauharnois power station.

The International Joint Committee (IJC) established by the governments of the United States and Canada is charged with oversight responsibility for boundary waters shared by the two nations, most importantly including the Great Lakes/St Lawrence basin. Part of their mandate is to, through controlling the flow through these various facilities, "regulate Lake Ontario within a target range from 74.2 to 75.4 metres (243.3 to 247.3 feet) above sea level." This involves, unfortunately, a number of variables over which the IJC has no control;

* Global warming is already causing a slight rise in global sea levels and is expected to cause significant rises in sea levels over the coming century, particularly with the anticipated partial or complete melt of the Greenland ice cap and the Antarctic ice cap. Does the IJC then continue to maintain Lake Ontario water levels relative to rising sea levels or does it "fix" the sea level relative to which Lake Ontario levels are maintained?
* Global warming could, additionally, have serious impact over rainfall and snow levels over the Great Lakes basin and the full area that drains into the basin. In this past decade alone precipitation levels in the region have changed significantly. Although the IJC charter allows for significant changes in future weather patterns and inflows, the specifics of how the IJC will respond have not been spelled out.
* The Great Lakes basin drains nearly half a continent. The IJC has no jurisdiction over rivers and tributaries feeding the Great Lakes basin which are wholy contained within either the U.S.A. or Canada, a significant shortcoming of the existing IJC mandate. These waterways, and any infrastructure on them that could affect Great Lakes inflow, fall under the jurisdiction of a hodge-podge of state, provincial, federal, county and municipal governments and their agencies.
* Controlling the levels of Lake Ontario does not automatically control the flow through the St. Lawrence. That is dependent on inflows to the Great Lakes. But St. Lawrence river levels are also affected by other major inflows downstream from the control infrastructure, such as the Ottawa River and Richelieu River.

Worrisome from a post Peak oil perspective is the long-term viability and maintenance of this infrastructure. This concern has been expressed by the IJC itself. In a recent IJC report entitled Unsafe Dams? the IJC stated "In recent years, the Commission has reviewed the terms of some of its Orders of Approval for the construction of such structures. It has become aware that some of its Regulated Facilities are in need of repair and that some existing programs have not ensured that these repairs were made. ..... Existing legislation, regulations, practices and government oversight are insufficient to ensure that Regulated Facilities are safe." Specifically included in this concern are the three dams through which Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River water levels are managed.
These facilities have now been in existence for several decades. This presents an obvious concern which the IJC have echoed, "Some Regulated Facilities were built early in the century. With aging facilities, maintenance programs are an absolute necesssity. Continuing maintenance programs are being implemented in some cases. Monies that owners budget for maintenance work are, however, sometimes not spent." In the case of the U.S. portion of the Moses/Saunders hydroelectric facility, much of the electricity generated is sold off to two key industries; the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) and General Motors Corporation (GM Powertrain). Most of the rest is sold off at cost to electric supply utilities across New York State. Should either or both of ALCOA or GM fail (GM's survival is even now in question), considering that maintenance and inspection are even now questionable, where will be the economic motivation to maintain the facility?

It is important to note that, at this time, the Canadian Federal government and the Ontario Provincial government have no established Dam Safety Program, though the Ontario Government is said to be working on one. Many of the major river systems feeding into Lake Ontario and the rest of the Great Lakes are controlled by a series of dams. The Trent River system feeding into Lake Ontario at Belleville/Trenton is a good example. In the lower reaches of the Trent River alone, from Frankford down to the Bay of Quinte, there are more than half a dozen major dams. Each of these dams holds back from 10-30 feet of water or more. Should any one of these dams fail, especially a dam further upstream, the volume of water released would simply inundate any dams further downstream, possibly leading to a domino collapse of dam after dam. The impact on Belleville, Trenton and all of the low-lying areas of Prince Edward County would be devestated.

Whether the Ontario Government is working on establishing a Dam Safety Program is, of course, a moot point in the face of a pending peak in global oil production and the potential severe impact on the global, American and Canadian economies. All dams, especially as they age, require significant ongoing maintenance and regular inspection. This is particularly so in a cold climate such as that in the Great Lakes basin with its severe seasonal variations and stresses on infrastructure, particularly dams. Whether the funds for inspecting and maintaining such infrastructure will be available in a collapsing economy is a reasonable question. Whether what funds are available will be spent on the appropriate inspection and maintenance is just as fair. Maintenance is always one of the first things to suffer when budgets get tight. There's no profit in maintenance.

In my article The myth of permanence: post-peak infrastructure maintenance, I explored the potential of future infrastructure maintenance problems on a broad range of sociatal infrastructure. Nowhere, in my opinion, is this more critical than with regard to dams. The Great Lakes contain a full 18% of the total surface freshwater on the planet. All of that water is kept in check by hundreds of dams controlling both outflow and inflow. That is a tremendous amount of aging infrastructure that will need increasing amounts of energy-intensive maintenance to remain viable. The energy that was available during the era when all that infrastructure was built won't be available when it all has to be replaced or decommissioned. The results could be catastrophic.


Alissa said...

Hi there,
Just came across your blog, and found this post very interesting! We are planning to move back to the Belleville area soon, to be close to family. We are currently living in Nova Scotia. Now I'm wondering if this is such a good idea. Do you really believe this is a likely scenario? Can or will anything be done to avert it?


Richard Embleton said...

The Belleville area (as well as Trenton, Picton, Deseronto, etc.) is particularly worrying to me (I am a native of Marmora, north of Belleville) because of the extensive amount of damming on the Trent and Moira River systems. The risk of Cascading dam failure due to lack of needed maintenance following peak oil is very high. See my article (Cascade Failure in River Systems with Multiple Dams