“The Great River Project” presented by Meredith Brown, Ottawa Riverkeeper
Downstream of the Mississippi River, the Ottawa Riverkeeper Meredith Brown keeps watch: a lecture report by Michael Macpherson
It was at a Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists lecture several years ago (2007) that scientist Paul Hamilton of the Canadian Museum of Nature came to Almonte to talk about ‘Water Quality’ as part of our lecture series focusing on the Mississippi River Watershed. At that time Hamilton told us that the health of the Mississippi River, flowing through our towns on its way from Mazinaw Lake near Bon Echo to the Ottawa River, was similar to the health of rivers in relatively remote parts of Northern Europe. In other words, he considered the Mississippi River to be quite pristine. He also said, though, that it would take work to keep it that way.
The relatively good environmental health of the Mississippi River watershed was and still is good news for downstream areas such as the grand Ottawa River. Earlier, this year, as part of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) 2011-12 lecture series, Ottawa’s Riverkeeper, Meredith Brown came to Almonte to present the lecture titled The Great River Project a lecture about the Ottawa River. Meredith Brown is an expert who brings to the task of ‘riverkeeping’, knowledge of river’s biology and mechanics as engineer and biologist; she is also an avid paddler and communicator.
The Ottawa Riverkeeper organization is part of an international Waterkeeper Alliance founded in 1999 in the U.S.A, which has roots even earlier in a group formed to protect the Hudson River in New York state. The Waterkeeper Alliance now includes representative organizations on six continents, including 10 in Canada (e.g. the Fraser Riverkeeper in B.C. and the Peticodiac Riverkeeper in Nova Scotia etc.). “Naturally, we [here in Lanark County] have a connection to the vision and ambitions of the Ottawa Riverkeeper—the Mississippi River tributary contributes 3% of the Ottawa River’s watershed and 2% of its flow. As stewards of the Mississippi watershed, we have a role to play in maintaining the natural greatness of the Ottawa River” says MVFN’s Program Chair Cathy Keddy, the driving force behind MVFN’s lecture series since 2007.
Focusing upon and drawing attention to the ecological health and future of the Ottawa River are the main tasks of the Ottawa Riverkeeper. Who [else] is paying attention to the health of the Ottawa River? , Brown asked at her MVFN lecture. A large river, 1271 km long, for a good part of its length the Ottawa forms the boundary between Ontario and Quebec, before emptying into the St. Lawrence at Montreal. Over two million people obtain drinking water from the Ottawa, and it sustains a huge hinterland ecosystem, over 146,000 square km. The Ottawa River has been nominated by Parks Canada as a Canadian Heritage River, and was one of ten rivers studied and profiled by the World Wildlife Fund for environmental flows and in the report, “Canada’s Rivers at Risk: Environmental Flows and Canada’s Freshwater Future”.
Brown stated that on balance, the water quality of the River is better than anticipated. She attributed this, somewhat surprisingly and in the simplest terms, to the fact that the Ottawa River is comparatively little used by the humans who live near it.
The height of pollution of the river was in the 1950’s, and it came mainly from pulp mill effluent and sewage. Nowadays, higher than average winter flows and lower than average summer flows are indicators of change on the River. So too, are changes to the endocrine systems of fish in the river, and the decline of some species formerly common across the watershed, such as the American Eel. According to Brown, the major threats to the Ottawa include the impact on environmental flows, of over 50 major power dams, and urban and commercial human developments inimical to the health of the river.
For many years such scientific and technical data as were collected on the River were not shared or jointly analyzed by the jurisdictions accountable for the health of the river and the people and communities living along its length. The Ottawa Riverkeeper has started doing this and encourages others to broaden and strengthen efforts in this area. To this end, Brown showed photographs of five trips in canoes and kayaks made by the Riverkeeper and friends on the Ottawa to collect information and raise awareness.
While the provinces of Ontario and Quebec and the Federal Government, and their agencies are responsible for various aspects of protecting the River, from the Riverkeepers point of view there is too little leadership and cooperation in evidence. The primary areas of cooperation are found in the management of hydroelectric power resources to produce electricity and prevent floods. Power producers bid on the provision of power from hour to hour, so the river dances to the tune of the demand for power, which may not always be beneficial to the ecosystems of the River. Dam operators, for example, not in compliance with steps intended to protect the American Eel, a listed endangered species in Ontario, are now looking for exemptions to regulations. Brown suggested that it may be important to try to engage private companies and dam operators in more environmentally sensitive flows and uses of waters in the watershed.
Positive developments pointed to during the presentation included the Ottawa River Summit Day, which was an opportunity to share stories and solutions, identify what is falling between the cracks, and building a network of Riverwatchers along the River. A Riverkeeper Association has recently been started in Mississippi Mills for the Mississippi River, a tributary.
Meredith stated that a big part of her task as Riverkeeper is finding solutions to issues and problems identified, by building awareness, understanding, and genuine commitments to action.
Above top: Mississippi River shoreline wet meadows and swamps below Carleton Place (photo Cathy Keddy)
Above bottom: An extensive marsh along the shoreline of the Ottawa River near Ottawa (photo B. Shipley).
One of the ongoing problems cited was that the Federal Fisheries Act is not being enforced. Brown brought to our timely attention, perhaps like Cassandra warning the Trojans, that proposed changes to the Fisheries Act included in the omnibus budget bill being presented to Parliament will water down the Act, limit or exclude public input and comment, and give the Minister of the Environment much greater authority to make decisions on the environment. We should all be alarmed about this, Brown said, as it amounted to taking protection of environmental habitat out of the Act. The old Act protected fish habitat and all of the other plants and animals within these habitats, including fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. With the changes proposed, only fish populations deemed to be of “economic, cultural or ecological value” would be protected. As we now know, these changes have now been passed by Parliament.
Further information on the Ottawa Riverkeeper organization and Riverkeeper issues and events may be found at ottawariverkeeper.ca.