French River – Lake Nipissing Water Levels Part III of III




April 2012

Submitted by the Communications Committee


There is an analogy that perfectly fits the Lake Nippissing and French River relationship.  The French River is like the drain in a bathtub. The dams are like the plug in the sink.  When the plug is in place, no water goes down the drain.  Pull the plug and down goes the water level.  The only method of control over the river flows and levels is how much water is being discharged at any given time.  With no controls down river, this situation will never change!

The last substantial flood on Lake Nippissing and the French River occurred in 1979.  The Sturgeon River flooded so badly, the Town of Field was moved to higher ground after the high water receded.  This flood prompted the Province to begin a flood reduction study that was ongoing for several years.  The Province refused to take over the operation of the dams from the Federal Department of Public Works, who really wanted to be rid of this responsibility.  The Ministry of Natural Resources made a decision to become more involved with the complexities of water level management in the Lake Nippissing and French River watershed.

Today the Ministry of Natural Resources has taken a lead role in coordinating an extensive undertaking in order to anticipate water level issues as they may arise from Lake Temagami to Georgian Bay.  To assist with this considerable task, an informal advisory committee was formed. The committee is comprised of knowledgeable individuals representing the different sections of the entire watershed.

The French River Resorts Association (FRRA) represents the French River area. There is also representation from around Lake Nipissing, from Ontario Power Generation and from the upper watershed, north of Nippissing to Temagami.  The advisory group, with MNR leadership, meets personally at least once a year and as needed by tele-conference during critical times.  The group brings a combined knowledge of water issues to all the discussions.  They then try and reach a consensus on what might be the best practice to follow regarding all the control structures in the watershed when there are possible flood or low water concerns.

When making decisions that today dictate how the dams are operated during critical times many criteria are involved.  Public safety and possible damages to property are high on the list.  However, there is now a great deal of consideration given to the Lake and River ecology and the fisheries.  We on the French River will never see stable or optimum levels as we would like.  With no down-river controls it is not possible.  There will be times when our interests will be influenced and possibly sacrificed to a larger population and to a more political power around Lake Nippissing.  But we now receive a great deal more consideration than in the past and if you were to ask some of the folks around North Bay we receive more than we deserve!

Currently, most of the owners of property with frontage on the French River have learned to adapt to ever changing water levels and how to prepare for and cope with those one in a hundred year flood that seems to occur every 25 to 30 years.  Further, it has become obvious that to achieve any success in beneficial water level management there has to be a collaborative effort involving interested and knowledgeable persons all along the watershed.  Everyone must be prepared to win some and lose some.  In any discussions when there is very high water or flood concerns the French River Resorts Association has always expressed one very important criterion.  If there is to be flooding, the pain must be equally shared up and down the system.  Not just Lake Nippissing or just the French River!

From the perspective of the French River Stewardship Council the issue of water levels and how they impact the fisheries is very important.  The Council is spending a lot of effort and considerable money on rehabilitating spawning beds.  All this effort would be to no avail if adverse water levels at spawning time cause the loss of the spawn.  As the years go by there will be an increasing role for the FRSC as older French River Resorts Association members are no longer involved.                             In any event a joint effort is necessary on this issue.  It is obvious that the goals are the same.

In conclusion, if you live or cottage on the French River, water levels, water quality and the fisheries should be very important to you.  Consequently, you can help to safeguard those interests by being an active member of the French River Stewardship Council.  Membership is inexpensive but very important.  Membership numbers mean a lot when the Council is working with government agencies.

Date Added: April 12, 2012 | Comments Off | Filed under: News — Tags: — webedit @ 9:51 pm

French River – Lake Nipissing Water Levels Part II of III





March 2012


The spring of 1947 saw one of the worst floods on the French River.  There was considerable damage to tourist lodges and camps along the river.  Probably the worst single case of damage was suffered by Pine Cove Lodge on Wolseley Bay.  The entire lower level floors of the main lodge were completely flooded.

That same year saw the formation of the French River Resorts Association.  One of the first efforts of the Association was to launch a lawsuit against the Federal Government, the Department of Public Works for damages caused as a result of mis-management of the French River dams.  It had only recently become possible to sue the Federal Government.  The FRRA lawsuit was one of the first, and the litigation was successful.

Damages were paid to approximately ten businesses.  Just as important, the lawsuit led to a flood limit being established at Dry Pine Bay.  Should this new flood limit be exceeded as a result of mis-management of the dams and not by natural causes or acts of God, the Dept. of Public Works could be held liable for damages.

There have been several floods since 1947, some quite damaging, but never as bad as the 1947 flood, and as a result many changes were made over the years.  Roads were re-routed and raised.  Boathouses and cottages were also raised or moved out of harms way.  Most importantly, a general awareness by property owners of what water levels can be like and how to cope with them is now the case.  There has also been flood plain mapping completed along the French River and Lake Nippissing, and restrictions have been put in place regarding where new buildings are permitted.

For over 60 years, The French River Resorts Association has continued to be active in getting more consideration from the Dept. of Public Works in their operation and management of the French River dams.  Property damage as a result of water levels is a serious issue but it pales compared to the damage that has occurred to the French River fisheries over the years as a result of varying water levels at spawning times.  The fisheries were, and still are of primary importance to the tourist industry on the French River.

Consider these facts about fish spawning.  Northern Pike spawn early, right after the ice-out and   they can also be seen spawning in shallow water before the ice is completely gone.  They lay their eggs in 8 to 18 inches of water.  If the water level is dropped a foot after spawning, the eggs are high and dry. If the   water level is raised by 2 feet or more, no sunlight is available and the eggs do not hatch.  It is the same for Walleye but the window is not quite so narrow in regards to the water levels.  For decades there was no concern on the part of the Dept. of Public Works or the Ministry of Natural Resources over the damage being done almost every year.  Levels were raised or lowered at critical spawning times with little or no regard to what was happening to the fisheries.

The French River Resorts Association became increasingly more aware of the water level issue as the years passed and fishing success continued to decline.  The Association was very persistent in their request for changes to be made in the mandate and operational guidelines used by the Dept. of Public Works in the management of the French River dams.  The Association demanded that down river concerns and priorities be recognized when deciding on raising or lowering water levels at critical times.

In spite of the pressure, the Dept. of Public Works continued to see their role and mandate as first, the Lake Nippissing navigation level on the 15th of May each year.Secondly, flood amelioration on Lake Nippissing and the French River.  It took years of effort on the part of French River Resorts Association before the DPW started to change their thinking.

The fact that the Dept. of Public Works had been successfully sued in the early 1950’s kept the D.P.W trying to avoid another lawsuit. The D.P.W undertook what at first appeared to be flood relief work on the French River.  During the late 1960’s and 1970’s widening and deepening of the channels at Pine Rapids, Horseshoe Falls, the Little French cut and the Dallas Rapids was carried out.  None of this work was ever really intended to stabilize water levels on the French River.  The work was only intended to permit more cubic meters of water to be discharged at the dams when Lake Nippissing was very high without exceeding the flood limit levels on the French River.

Part III will continue with the water level history and we will learn what was accomplished and how we got there.


Date Added: March 12, 2012 | Comments Off | Filed under: News — Tags: — webedit @ 3:33 pm

French River – Lake Nipissing Water Levels Part I of III

 February 2012

 Submitted by the FRSC Communications Committee

Living or cottaging on the French River or Lake Nipissing makes the issue of water levels and how they are managed a matter of continuing interest.  In this three part article there will be an attempt to explain some of the history of management efforts and where we are today with trying to meet current management objectives.  That is, despite how Mother Nature continually tries to surprise and upset the managers.

The Lake Nipissing – French River watershed is very large at some 19,000 square KM.  It encompasses hundreds and hundreds of lakes, rivers and streams.  When the last glacier that covered all of this area retreated some 10,000 years ago we were left with this beautiful landscape that we all appreciate and enjoy.

The largest lake in the watershed is Lake Nipissing at 850 Sq.KM.  It is the fourth largest lake in Ontario.  The watershed includes the Lake Temagami and Lake Wanapitei areas.  Most of the watershed is north and a little east of Lake Nipissing and most of the waters in the watershed area drain into Lake Nipissing and then down the French River.

The foregoing is background in an attempt to outline the complexities that arise when man decides that we should control water levels on parts of the upper watershed, on the main water body and finally no controls on the bottom end of the drainage which is the French River.

A number of bodies of water that drain into Lake Nipissing have control mechanisms, most do not. Some smaller dams on those water bodies are there simply to hold stable water levels on those waters.  Some of the larger dams are producing power.  There are presently efforts being made at strategic times to co-ordinate the operations of the different dams in order to preserve water for hydro power making or for flood control.

Because so many water bodies are not controlled, the efforts to achieve a good result are not always successful.  Finally, Mother Nature and weather predictions that are sketchy at best, can really throw a monkey wrench into man-made planning.  Efforts will continue however, utilizing best known practices.

During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s forestry operations were extensively being carried out around Lake Nipissing, particularly North and West of the Lake.  The only practical way of moving the logs being harvested considerable distances was down the rivers and into the lake.  For many years there was a large saw mill operation in Cache Bay which is just west of Sturgeon Falls. That mill processed thousands and thousands of the logs that were brought to the lake for many, many years.

However, there was always a problem by early or mid-summer in floating the logs into the bay as Lake Nipissing water levels would naturally go down with summer dryness and cause difficulties in shallow Cache Bay.  So, at some point in the early 1900’s, it was decided that the Government should build dams on the Upper French River in order to facilitate the large lumber interests in getting their logs to the Cache Bay mill.  The dams would provide a stable water level all season on Lake Nipissing.  A desirable level was established and subsequently, has always been referred to as the level for navigation.  The goal every spring was to have the lake at that level by May 15th.

Over the years many structures such as docks, boathouses and cottages have been established along the lake shores to take advantage of the navigation level.  Boating was also facilitated by the stable water levels.  This was especially true for the larger deep draft vessels such as the successive Chief Commanda’s that sailed the lake from end to end.

When the dams were built on the Upper French River the Government and their engineers apparently gave no thought to what the impacts would be on the Lower French River ecology and the rivers fish population.  It seemed that the only consideration was what the effects would be on the lake and would they be beneficial.

As a result, serious flooding occurred in the 1940’s and 1950’s, along with observable harmful impacts on the river fisheries, brought forth an outcry from the French River Tourist Operators and others about how the dams were being managed.  A long arduous effort began to try and change some of the French River dam operational criteria and mandates.  In the next segment of this story there will be more history presented related to this issue, and what has been achieved to date.

Please watch for Part II in the next edition brought to you by the French River Stewardship Council.

Date Added: February 10, 2012 | Comments Off | Filed under: News — Tags: — webedit @ 5:56 pm