Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Your Dam River

What is a “dam river?”

A river with dams on it. Most rivers are dammed, and if they aren’t already, they likely will be one day.

What is "your" dam river?

Your dam river is a river you paddle on with dams.

You need to know how many there are, where they are located, what kind of flows are coming out of them and how they might affect the stretch of water you’re planning to paddle on.

You may have more than one dam river.

There are many rivers that I regularly paddle in Canada: the Ottawa, Madawaska, Gatineau, Rideau Canal system, Mississippi, and St. Lawrence rivers. And, there are other rivers I hit up and need to learn about when I travel.

Every time I want to paddle a river, especially a new stretch I don’t know, it takes research.

Where are the dams? Where are the rapids? How paddler friendly is it? How hard is it to navigate? Where is the put in and take out? What else do I need to be aware of? (There are alligators in some Florida rivers, and others affected by tides, or cruise ship activity.) How much gear do I need to bring or wear? What’s the weather report? How beautiful will it be? How much fun can I have?

You may even ask yourself sometimes if it is worth all this effort to paddle at all and take up cycling instead!

Now, where can I find all this information in one simple place or who can I call? Sometimes, that can be a reliable outfitter or another paddler who knows the area.

One of my dam rivers around home is the Ottawa River.

The sudden rise in the water levels on the Ottawa River really surprised me this past September when I was cycling past a favorite spot in Aylmer, Quebec. (See, I opted for the bike a lot this year.) All summer it had been a low dry stretch of river rock in this particular spot. Then, overnight, it became the exciting and dangerous roaring rapid you would normally see in the spring. I was wondering what the scoop was, and now just found the answer in an article about rainfall and dam behavior that I’ll share below.

And as I continue to research dams and explore just how much Paddling with dams is damned!, I’m discovering alarming things about dams. Things that include questions about public safety, environmental concerns, and of course the always forgotten socio-cultural aspect of what dams do to people! Not everyone and few other living-things benefit.

But, my focus will remain on dam information for paddlers. It is complicated and time consuming to find out what is happening with dams: finding maps of dam locations by river, dam flow rates and predictions, and someone to contact for real-time information.

The reason - dams are not owned and operated by any one authority. You’ll have to shop around on the Web to try and figure out who is responsible for the dams on your water, and surrounding land that they totally control with these things. Land they don't own or are responsible for can and is affected by dam behavior. Then see if the dam owner/authority has posted information you can find and understand, and decide if it might be safe to launch, paddle and take out on that water. I’m researching dams in Canada and the United States. This topic could be a full-time job for an army.

In this particular case on the Ottawa River in September 2010, it looks like heavy rainfall and dam releases caused the sudden and more obvious change in water levels. But when it comes to dams, especially hydroelectric dams, the bigger monsters that can open up when the demand for more power peaks, it can be even harder to know what to expect and when. This is something I didn't know or think about before.

Do you know where to go to get dam release news and alerts on waterways you paddle? Can you sign up for RSS feeds and email alerts? Do you know how many dams are on the river you paddle and where they are located?

Find a good resource, call someone, then post the useful links for your river(s) on your paddle website or blog so it becomes an easy reference for yourself and others.

Resources for you on one of my dam rivers – The Ottawa River (Ontario/Quebec, Canada):

Ontario Power Generation, Ottawa River dams

Ottawa Riverkeeper, information about dams on the Ottawa River

For more information about dams and the impact of dams worldwide see:
International Rivers - About Dams

Below are excerpts from the Ottawa Citizen/Yahoo news about the sudden surge on the Ottawa River in September 2010:
Wet weather, dam release creates sudden rise in Ottawa River, wreaks havoc with docks and boats
A sudden change in water levels on the Ottawa River (Ontario, Canada) in September 2010 surprised residents along the shore lines. They wound up with damaged docks and boats. September rains pushed just short of a record, and caused a sudden rise in the Ottawa River that surprised homeowners, boaters and even the experts.

The 90 millimetres of rain that fell upriver last weekend came downstream just in time to meet more rain falling here, raising the Ottawa River to spring-like levels from extreme lows.

Meredith Brown from the Ottawa Riverkeeper said the water rise was “not that inconsistent with how the dams operate. I’ve seen water levels go up twice (or) three times that much overnight because of dam releases.”

“Of course, nobody tells you, eh?” remarked a marina manager near Constance Bay.

The Ottawa River Regulating Committee posted this warning Tuesday evening on its website:

“As a result of significant rainfall, water levels along the Ottawa River are expected to rise for the next few days. Officials of the Ottawa River Regulating Committee would therefore like to alert residents along the river, particularly those that have wharves, docks and boats, to expect significant increases in water levels.”

But the “drastic” rise surprised even the committee, said spokesman Fergus McLaughlin.

“This year because it was so low and so dry, the (river) just shot up so fast that it was impossible to get a warning out.”

That’s because the computer can’t just add up the rain and spit out a perfect prediction, he said. There are too many variables, such as actual rainfall that doesn’t match the forecast, and a river that changes width and depth for every kilometre of its journey to the St. Lawrence.

More proof for my research on dams, that even if you can get data on dam locations, flow rates and predictions, and rainfall estimates, you can’t count on it. It’s a complicated network that can fool even the experts.

Ontario Power Generation put a warning on its website Wednesday about high levels and fast water in the Ottawa and Madawaska Rivers.

Isn’t that a little too late?

Early reports said Ontario Power Generation caused the change by opening up its Chats Falls dam at Arnprior. But Ontario Power Generation spokesman Ted Gruetzner said there was no major change there.

Passing the buck. Who does know what’s going on then?

Enough dam research for today. I’m off to plan something fun!

Seriously, I'm thinking skiing and I'm going to take some time to explore the paddlers that must paddle winter while the rest of us are happy for the time off to park and repair our boats! And I'm going to talk about yoga and cross-country skiing (maybe even snowshoeing) for paddlers who find winter tough. All things I was once convinced I hated!

Paddlers who don't know they love cross-country skiing yet . . . but will!
Let's talk yoga, a Greenland Paddle and healing a wrecked shoulder Happy and safe paddling to those of you who must paddle in winter!
The BaffinPaddler

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