The St. Lawrence River flows through Canada, the United States and First Nation’s territories and connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Part of the largest freshwater system on earth, it is a source of drinking water for millions of people in both Canada and the United States. It is also a breathtakingly beautiful recreational mecca that supports a vital tourism-based economy in many small communities.
Its gorgeous scenery, however, hides serious ecological damage that is causing a decline in fish-and-wildlife populations. An outdated plan for regulating water levels has persistently and severely eroded an estimated 64,000 acres of essential coastal wetlands, which include extensive fish-spawning and nursery grounds, the lifeblood of the river’s ecosystem, precipitously lowering the number of northern pike, common terns and other key-indicator species that it supports.
The International Joint Commission (IJC), a bi-national organization established in 1909, has regulated water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River since the 1950s, when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened the river and the Great Lakes to international shipping, and the massive Moses-Saunders hydropower dam was completed on the river. The regulation plan adopted then primarily served the special interests of commercial navigation and hydropower production. Further, when the seaway opened the environment was not a consideration, and the regulation plan that was adopted, and that remains in effect today, stifled the natural ebb and flow of the river. The unnatural regulation of water levels resulted in the clogging of wetlands with mats of cattails, diminishing the benefits they provide, such as purifying water by absorbing excess nutrients and providing habitat and feeding grounds for aquatic and avian species.
Now there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reverse the devastating impacts of the unnatural water levels. In June 2014, after 15 years of study and consultation among governments, non-governmental organizations, and communities and businesses around the basin, the IJC recommended a new plan to the U.S. and Canadian governments. This “Plan 2014” would return some of the natural fluctuations in water levels and restore 65,000 acres of coastal wetlands and hundreds of miles of lake and river shorelines. And the ecosystem would once again thrive.
Waterkeeper organizations throughout the Great Lakes region, including Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, Ottawa Riverkeeper, and Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper, have added their voices in support of the plan as it slowly makes its way through an interagency review process. But it will not be implemented unless these advocates win the approval of Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. “Waterkeepers are combining their efforts to reach the highest levels of government in both countries,” said Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper Lee Willbanks. “It’s a once-in- 100-years chance to return the St. Lawrence to its once-bountiful condition.”