New IJC plan of regulation for St. Lawrence

The International Joint Commission (IJC) has recently announced public hearings for July on its proposed new method of regulation for water levels on the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario. This new method has been called Bv7 for a while, but is now titled Plan 2014 (which is essentially Bv7 with modifications): In my forthcoming book (UBC Press, early 2014) on the history of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project, I discuss at length how the initial methods of regulation came about, as this might give both the public and policymakers pause when it comes to further attempts to control water systems. While Plan 2014 is an important improvement, any methods of regulating the St. Lawrence, and the ideas and approaches such river profiles are built upon, are deeply flawed. The following is excerpted from the the draft book manuscript:



The shape of the new river/reservoir was determined by a small coterie of experts from both Canada and the United States. This process was largely taken for granted, both by the public and by the governments involved, and the final result made it all appear a foregone conclusion. But beneath the surface, establishing the water levels was an uncertain and imprecise process, determined as much by personal and political motivations as it was by scientific expertise. Charting the evolution of the high-level engineering of the St. Lawrence waters, which is the focus of this section, shows the experts and planners to be products of their cultural and professional context, and reveals some of the contradictions in their logic of progress.

In addition to political and economic issues that had the potential to hold up construction, actual work on the interdependent St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project had been unable to progress until the engineers had established a “river profile” and developed a “method of regulation” for the river and Lake Ontario. The “method of regulation” referred to the levels between which the water would be maintained by dams and control works in order to meet prescribed goals (e.g. hydro-electric production). The explicit goal was to maintain the water levels at an average that equated to “natural levels” but also to improve on nature by removing the extremes of high and low and flows in order to create a predictable and orderly river. “Natural” was defined as that which had existed in the 19th century before the first manmade alterations to water levels. For the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario, the natural levels were what existed before Canada installed the Gut dam in the St. Lawrence River between Galops and Adams islands in the early 20th century.[i]

Yet establishing exactly what constituted a “state of nature” was problematic from the outset. Not only did representatives of the two countries disagree upon the historic impact of the Gut dam, but it was also difficult to find information regarding the natural levels to use as a baseline. The Joint Board of Engineers had set the elevation of 248.1 (feet above sea level) as the high water level in 1926, but there was concern that this measurement was unreliable because of the geological phenomenon of earth tilt, as well as a 1944 earthquake centered between Cornwall and Massena. Indeed, engineering studies indicated that natural factors must have played a much larger role in the recent rise in Lake Ontario water levels than had the man-made factors (i.e. diversions into the Great Lakes basin), though this assessment may have been partially motivated by the desire to escape liability for the damage done to the property of lakeshore property owners.

Nonetheless, 248 feet was taken as the extreme elevation since a minimum and maximum range of levels needed to be determined. The various governmental and construction entities had to know the final expected levels before proceeding with digging channels and locks. Starting construction before the water levels had been determined risked costly mistakes, e.g. the dredging costs for the power entities would rise several million dollars for each foot the water levels were lowered.[ii] The International Joint Commission’s 1952 order of approval had also provided that any concerned interests (e.g. shore-front property) would be given adequate legal protection and indemnity in their respective country. Largely in response to the complaints of the Lake Ontario Land Owners and Beach Protection Association, which represented shore owners, the Lake Ontario levels issue was given its own International Joint Commission (IJC) docket in addition to the St. Lawrence project. The Lake Ontario Joint Board of Engineers was formed in 1953, and the Lake Ontario issue became intertwined with the St. Lawrence discussions, as any decision about levels on the river would affect the lake. The corollary of restricting Lake Ontario water levels was the various downstream impacts; for example, lowering water levels by a foot meant the annual loss of 225,000,000 kilowatt hours of power development at the Barnhart dam. [Figure 6.2 approx]

As the binational negotiations for a joint vs. solely Canadian seaway reached their zenith in 1954, the International Joint Commission engineers were busy utilizing models to simulate historical water levels on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. It became apparent that there had been errors in the calculation of Method of Regulation No. 5, which was serving as the interim measure, as it would barely lower the maximum levels on Lake Ontario.[iii] R.A.C. Henry, one of the Canadian experts on the engineering aspects of the St. Lawrence, commented on the process whereby the engineering representatives of the two countries had arrived at the previous “238-242” range of levels for Barnhart dam: “In light of the evidence which is available on the subject it appears reasonably certain that the 238-242 range was actually a compromise between two conflicting views and was not based upon any positive and well-defined line of reasoning … .”[iv] Yet Henry and his colleagues were not immune from similar errors. Between 1954 and 1959 there were many engineering miscalculations, assumptions, compromises, and partisan preferences. Shortly after Henry’s observation, in an internal Canadian meeting, HEPCO General Manager Otto Holden stated outright that they did not know what the natural conditions were. General McNaughton, who reputedly dominated the IJC and was known as a tough Canadian nationalist, emphasized “that the balance of conditions on Lake Ontario is so delicate that he could not feel assurance that the engineers could in fact keep the levels within the 244-248 range.”[v] As a result, they strove to attain levels “as nearly as may be.” However, in public they gave an impression of preciseness and confidence.

To be fair, the planners were in many ways products of their training and societal ideals, and were subject to dominant national and transnational ideas that promoted the collaboration of industrial capital and the state as necessary to maximize the development of natural resources in the name of economic and social progress. They believed they were wisely maximizing natural resources. There was great societal and occupational pressure on the “experts” to provide answers and do so in a confident manner: in addition to hundreds of millions of dollars, many jobs and related economic factors, national and organizational pride, and the role of technology and expertise in capitalist/democratic and communist Cold War tensions, their personal and professional stature was at stake. Whereas scientists studying pollution issues in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin a decade later could publicly admit to uncertainty, open disclosure of doubt was unthinkable for the St. Lawrence engineers.[vi] [Insert Figures 6.3, 6.4, 6.5 approx – ideally keep together]

All plans and specifications had to be approved by the St. Lawrence Joint Board of Engineers, but problems soon appeared because the power entities and construction agencies failed to submit their plans, and the Board of Engineers also became embroiled in the Cornwall channels dredging controversy. The Canadian and American sections of the International Lake Ontario Board of Engineers disagreed about the maximum level of Lake Ontario, squabbling over fractions of an inch. The Americans seemed to be largely motivated by political concerns stemming from the protests of Lake Ontario beach owners, while the Canadian position was largely predicated on protecting Montreal interests, for any lowering of Lake Ontario levels would tend to raise water levels in the western Quebec section of the St. Lawrence.[vii] The main future users of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project – power production, navigation, shoreline property, and downstream interests – wanted different minimum and maximum water levels or varying ranges of stages (i.e. difference between high and low levels) and pleasing everyone seemed impossible. At the various public hearings that were conducted on the lake levels, many people came to voice their concern about the impact of higher water levels, such as shoreline erosion. However, the transcripts show that property owners were worried about their own property value, rather than nature or ecological impact.

            Regardless, in March 1955 the International Joint Commission told the Canadian and American governments that it was possible to regulate the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario in such a way as to balance the various demands. A revised method of regulation was arrived at, labeled 12-A-9, but there were problems with that as well: for example, tests showed that under its parameters the seaway would constrict the channel at Montreal. There was discussion about increasing the upper limit marginally from 248.0 to, for example, 248.3, but such precise goals appear, in retrospect, somewhat strange given the uncertainty about the evidence and tests they used – engineers were trying to ascertain the historic conditions on which they based their arguments at the same time they were making their arguments. The guiding principle of “as nearly as may be” continued to prevail. In July 1956 the IJC issued a supplementary order directing that Lake Ontario levels be maintained between 244 and 248, again adding the “nearly as may be” rider. Yet soon after, method 12-A-9 was replaced by another method, 1958-A. The precise technical differences between these methods are not important here – rather, it is the frequency of changes and the decision-making manner that are noteworthy because they betray how messy and reactive the process of regulating the river levels actually was.

Attention also frequently turned to the ability of control works, such as the Iroquois dam, to manage water flows in such a way so as to manipulate winter ice formation and prevent blockages. Here too the propensity of the engineers to act as if they could master their subject despite the imprecision of their knowledge (and their awareness of this impreciseness) was apparent. Intriguing was the way in which they labeled anything beyond their control or understanding as an “Act of God,”[viii] suggesting that if it was unknowable by their scientific techniques, it was beyond comprehension. It was not so much the case that the governments and planners involved could not comprehend the complexity of their task, but rather that they chose to ignore or mentally exclude the uncontrollable aspects of the St. Lawrence environment in order to persist in their belief that they had perfect conceptual understanding. Put another way, they effectively bracketed those factors and contingencies for which they could not account or control.

Part of the problem stemmed from the faith that the engineers placed in their models. The planning authorities, including the IJC, were enamored with these models and believed them to be indispensable for determining the future fluvial geomorphology; thus they were central to the engineering recommendations. Models were, however, often found to be wrong. Sometimes this stemmed from incorrect knowledge, such as faulty gauge data, about the river on which they were based.[ix] Because of the scale of the models, a slight error would be distorted out of proportion when applied to actual excavations or structures in the river. Such distortions also obtained in attempts to simulate the turbidity of the river by increasing the model roughness factor.[x] In a further example, which exposes the rivalries that also affected the various national sections of the different engineering boards, as well as the problem created by all the spoil from excavation, HEPCO complained that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers model of the American seaway installations in the International Rapids section (IRS) did not “sufficiently exploit the river and the terrain and that the disposal areas have been unwisely shown. In at least one case, disposal could prove a hazard to navigation. … had simply decided somewhat crudely, to bulldoze their way in a straight line through the area regardless of its natural features.”[xi]

Even after years of experience with the St. Lawrence models, significant problems were still occurring in early 1958: “[t]he model, although not near final verification, already showed inconsistencies in the prototype data” and as a result  “it was again necessary to suspend continuous operation of the model due to incomplete, indefinite and unconfirmed prototype data.”[xii] Indicating the impact of improper extrapolation from models to actual river conditions, in March “it was discovered that, due to an oversight in establishing … conditions, an area comprising approximately 1½ blocks was left in the lower channel.”[xiii] Such incidents show that the planners and engineers were quite flexible and adaptive when they encountered changed conditions or errors, but also indicate the flaws in the conceptual approaches employed by the hydraulic engineers.

St. Lawrence planners had spent decades studying and analyzing the river conditions and were attuned to many of the local conditions. While abstracting sections of the river into macro-scale models, the planners and builders of the St. Lawrence project relied on extensive studies of the specific conditions at particular spots in the St. Lawrence.[xiv] All told, 475 engineers collectively worked on the project, and many themselves explored the river and its environs in great detail, relying heavily on specific place information produced by water gauges, soil and rock samples, soundings, test drills, and elevation measurements.[xv] However, this knowledge, generated by “experts” and their technologies and methodologies, was the only useful and acceptable type of knowledge; local and therefore “unscientific” knowledge was ignored, for the planners were after a specific type of information. They had no interest in the embodied, experiential knowledge of those who knew the river valley first-hand.[xvi] Given the size of the area that was affected, the St. Lawrence engineers were unable to know in detail every square foot of river, and in a number of cases the sub-surface conditions encountered took them by surprise. Nonetheless, the engineers believed that when they had sufficient knowledge of conditions on the ground – the types of rock, the composition of soils, the water flows and velocities – they could control the entire river and ecosystem.

Despite construction and engineering problems, strikes, supply issues, legal and political delays that threatened the target date for the raising of the power pool on July 1, 1958, the St. Lawrence River Joint Board of Engineers felt confident enough to authorize that it proceed. The filling proceeded very closely with the anticipated schedule, reaching the prescribed forebay level of 236 feet early in the morning of July 4 – it reached 238 a few days later, and then 240.5 in December 1959.[xvii] An elaborate gauging system tracked water levels and flows. Method 1958-A remained as the provisional working model, although engineers were clear that it would likely need to be adjusted, and it was superseded by 1958-C at the beginning of 1962, which in turn was replaced the following October by Method 1958-D, though it is scheduled to be replaced.[xviii] During the first year after the power pool had been raised, there were problems with ice forming “hanging dams” that reduced power output, and issues with low water levels downriver from the Barnhart dam in the early 1960s. [xix] It also quickly became apparent that the water level (and thus the power head) was higher on the American side of the Moses-Saunders dam than on the Canadian, and as a result the power entities agreed to equally share the output of power, rather than inflow of water.[xx]

The Power Authority of the State of New York (PASNY) and the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario (HEPCO) concluded an operating agreement for the power works, and meetings between the two entities continued well into the 1960s to sort out the division of expenses and take care of remaining aspects of the project. Legal difficulties concerning redress continued, as it seemed that the legal structures in Canada provided no means of compensating those injured by changing water levels. Concerns about liability also led to debates about whether the International Joint Commission (through the St. Lawrence Board of Control) or the power entities would have responsibility for controlling the gates at Iroquois dam. The Board of Control was eventually given responsibility for establishing the water levels. But the method of regulation was not always satisfactory, as there were significant problems with low water levels in the river in the 1960s, and then high water levels in the 1970s.[xxi] These were attributed to natural supplies of greater variance than had occurred in the 100-year period upon which the engineers had based the various methods of regulation.[xxii] Nevertheless, in the longer term, compared to pre-project conditions, the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario water levels were more predicable and controllable, and the range of water levels was compressed (i.e. extreme highs lower, extreme lows higher). Despite the flaws and mistakes, it is important to recognize that, in the end the remaking of the river largely functioned as planned.

[i] IJC, Canadian Section, docket 67-2-5:6: Lake Ontario Levels Reference, Meetings, McNaughton, Burbridge, Cote 1953/01/16, Memorandum to General McNaughton re August 29, 1952 meeting, September 2, 1952. A number of claims were made by U.S. Lake Ontario shore owners because of Gut dam. They unsuccessfully tried to sue Canada, and requested that the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission examine the claims. Finally, in 1968, Canada agreed to pay a token $350,000 as settlement for the alleged damage. Carl F. Goodman, “Canada-United States Settlement of Gut Dam Claims: Report of the Agent of the United States Before the Lake Ontario Claims Tribunal,” International Legal Materials, Vol. 8 No. 1 (January 1969), 118-143.

[ii] Government of Canada, Library and Archives Canada (LAC), RG 25, vol. 6352, file 1268-AD-40, pt 1, St. Lawrence Project: Dredging at Cornwall Island (Dec 1, 1954 to March 25, 1955), Memorandum for the Minister – St. Lawrence Project, January 24, 1955.

[iii] The long term average flow (1860-1954) was determined to be 240,000 cfs, which was about 4,000 cfs more than the average used for Method of Regulation No. 5. IJC, Canadian Section, docket 68-5-1: St. Lawrence Project, Miscellaneous Memoranda, March 1954 – Memorandum. Studies showed that the impact of the levels of Gut Dam had been exaggerated and was really about 4 ½ inches, which was approximately half of what had been believed by some. IJC, Canadian Section, 68-2-5:6-1: St. Lawrence Power Application, Minutes of IJC Meetings. 1952/07 & 1962/04, St. Lawrence Power Application: modification of Order of Approval (Executive Session, Boston), April 9, 1954; “Effects on Lake Ontario Water Levels of the Gut Dam and Channel Changes in the Galop Rapids Reach of the St. Lawrence River, Main Report,” Report to the International Joint Commission by the International Lake Ontario Board of Engineers, October 1958.

[iv] IJC, Canadian Section, 68-3-V2: St. Lawrence Power Application, Correspondence From 1954/01/01 to 1954/12/21, Henry to McNaughton, Re: 238-242 Controlled Single Stage Project, International Rapids Section, May 12, 1954.

[v] IJC, Canadian Section, 68-3-V2: St. Lawrence Power Application, Correspondence from 1954/01/01 to 1954/12/21, Memorandum of Meeting, July 3, 1954.

[vi] There is a large body of literature on scientific uncertainty and policy-making in general, much of it concerning the Great Lakes environment, such as Terence Kehoe, Cleaning Up the Great Lakes: From Cooperation to Confrontation (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1997), Chapter 5: The Burden of Proof: Pollution Control and Scientific Uncertainty; Stephen Bocking, Nature’s Experts: Science, Politics, and the Environment (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004); Dean Bavington; Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).

[vii] The regulation criteria outlined that the water level of Montreal Harbour would be no lower than would have occurred if the power project had not been built. J.B. Bryce, A Hydraulic Engineering History of the St. Lawrence Project with Special Reference to Regulation of Waters Levels and Flows (Toronto: Ontario Hydro, 1982), 94; LAC, RG 25, vol. 6778, file 1268-D-40, pt 43.2, St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project – General File, DEA Memorandum: Lake Ontario levels, April 26, 1955.

[viii] IJC, Canadian Section, docket 68-2-5:1-9– St. Lawrence Power Application. Executive Session 1957/04 & 1957/10, IJC, St. Lawrence Power Development, Semi-Annual Meeting (Washington), April 9, 1957.

[ix] IJC, Canadian Section, St. Lawrence Power Applic. Model Studies – Vol. I, The Importance to Canada of the Construction of a Hydraulic Model for the Determination of the effects of the Gut Dam and Channel Improvements in the Galops Rapids Section of the St. Lawrence River (McNaughton), December 9, 1953.

[x] IJC Canadian Section, docket 68-8-6:3. St. Lawrence Power Application. FPC in the United States Court of Appeals 1953-1954, St. Lawrence Power Appl., Model Studies – Vol. I, Associate Committee of the National Research Council on St. Lawrence River Models (draft), October 15, 1953

[xi] LAC, RG 25, vol. 6778, file 1268-D-40, pt 45, St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project – General File, DEA Memorandum: St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project: Visit to Ontario Hydro models, July 5, 1955.

[xii] IJC, Canadian Section, Assoc. Committee on St. Lawrence River Model Studies, Progress Memorandum No. 2. National Research Council, January 15, 1958.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Tina Loo and Meg Stanley make this point in the context of British Columbia dam-building in the

1960s and 1970s, calling it “high modernist local knowledge”: Tina Loo with Meg Stanley, “An Environmental History of Progress: Damming the Peace and Columbia Rivers,” Canadian Historical Review, 92, 3 (September 2011), 399-427. Matthew Evenden also provides an excellent discussion of the expertise and authority of fisheries scientists in the context of 1950s British Columbia dam-building: Matthew Evenden, Fish versus Power: An Environmental History of the Fraser River (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[xv] According to Passfield, the SLSA alone employed 120 Canadian engineers, while Ontario Hydro used 66 engineers in design, and 50 more to supervise construction of the powerhouse. Robert W. Passfield, “The Construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway,” Canal History and Technology Proceedings, XXII (2003), 41. On the use of gauges, Bryce, 75-81.

[xvi] Loo with Stanley, “An Environmental History of Progress: Damming the Peace and Columbia Rivers”; Joy Parr, Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953-2003 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009).

[xvii] IJC, Canadian Section, docket 68-2-5: Joint Board of Engineers, vol. 1, Meeting No. 28 of St. Lawrence River Joint Board of Engineers, July 3, 1958.

[xviii] In 2012, the IJC announced a new method of regulation, Bv7, that allows for more natural fluctuation cycles and greater variability. This has since been modified to Plan 2014.

[xix] Six ice booms were subsequently installed to prevent such ice formations. IJC, Canadian Section, docket 68-3-V10. St. Lawrence Power Application. Correspondence Re: Interim Measures Regulation, Memorandum of Telephone Conversation Re St. Lawrence, January 14, 1959; IJC, Canadian Section, docket 68-8-2:2. St. Lawrence Power Application, SLRJBE – Basic Documents, Brief to the St. Lawrence River Joint Board of Engineers on Ice-Boom Installation for St. Lawrence Power Project, June 10, 1959.

[xx] LAC, RG 25, vol. 5026, file 1268-D-40, pt. 54, St. Lawrence Seaway Project – General File, Jan 8, 1960 to Feb 27, 1962, Memorandum: Power Generation at Barnhart Island, October 13, 1961.

[xxi] Method of regulation 1958-DD, which incorporates 1958-D, was eventually developed to deal with such fluctuating conditions.

[xxii] Bryce, 108.

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