Opponents pin hopes on sturgeon to delay dams

Peggy Revell

Opponents to the proposed “run-of-river” hydroelectric generating stations on the Namakan River are hoping information gathered from a nine-day observation of lake sturgeon at the High Falls site in late April will increase the level of environmental assessment required by the Ontario government before the project proceeds.
As previously reported, Ojibway Power and Energy Group, a partnership between Lac La Croix First Nation and Chant Construction Ltd., is proposing to construct a 6.4-megawatt “run-of-river” hydroelectric generating station at High Falls, about 100 km southeast of Fort Frances and 90 km southwest of Atikokan.
“After participating with the Rainy Lake Conservancy—when I saw the posted environmental report, that kind of sparked me a little bit,” noted Laurent Robichaud, who is from Timmins, Ont. and has spent years advocating for lake sturgeon, which are designated as a species of “special concern” in Ontario under the Endangered Species Act.
“And I kind of realized, ‘Oh boy, we’ve got a situation, a major situation, that needs to be attended to,’” he stressed.
Both the Ministry of Natural Resources here and Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota have spent the past several years studying the sturgeon population and migration patterns along the Namakan, with more research coming in.
But Robichaud said the exact area of where sturgeon are spawning has not been confirmed—something he and the RLC aimed to confirm on his nine-day trip to the proposed dam site last month.
While Robichaud had timed his late April visit to be at the site for the spring spawn, the water temperature and weather meant he was there just a few days early­.
But he still was able to observe and videotape the sturgeon, which already has arrived before spawning began.
He estimated he saw 100 sturgeon during his time at the site.
“To say one thing about that site, and having visited the other sites also, I visited Snake [Falls], Myrtle [Falls], I navigated through Hay and Lady rapids, I saw only one sturgeon in another location but it was all by itself,” Robichaud noted.
“So to me, to describe High Falls right now with regards to lake sturgeon, I would say that it’s the most important spawning location for lake sturgeon on that Namakan system,” he remarked.
“Even though it’s recorded that they go on what they call the back channel, it is still where sturgeon will go to spawn, is right at the falls, there’s no denying that.
“I’ve seen too many fish there.”
Robichaud, with the RLC, now will be working to submit what he observed to the Ministry of the Environment.
“Right now, my report I’m working on it, it’s going to be quite lengthy,” he said. “I’ve got lots of data concerning temperatures of water, concerning sightings with the day by day report, [and it] will be going to the ministry.
“And beyond that, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“We’re kind of hoping that [the project] will be bumped up to a higher level of environmental assessment,” Robichaud added, arguing the current environmental report submitted by OPEG to the ministry has errors and omissions.
“When you start making mistakes like that, they were really serious, severe mistakes, that almost warrants a better environmental assessment, I think,” he stressed.
One example of what wasn’t originally reported, he said, comes from his observations at the High Falls site, where he observed a winter hiding spot deer had used over the years.
“It’s just another item that’s happening at the falls, which should be logged as something that’s relevant,” he explained.
OPEG held a public review period for the project’s draft environmental report, which closed at the end of February.
Input from both the public and government agencies is being used to improve the document, followed by a second public review of the revised report.
Following this, if approved by the MoE, OPEG can proceed with obtaining the needed permits for the dam project.
Given concerns about the sturgeon population were noted right from the very beginning of the project, OPEG has included in its proposed design monitoring systems, adaptive management processes, and a “fish way” that will allow the fish to swim upstream past the dams.
Speaking with the Fort Frances Times during this public review period, Lac La Croix Chief Leon Jourdain expressed satisfaction with the environmental assessment and the measures taken to protect the surrounding environment.
He also stressed the much-needed economic benefit and independence the proposed dams will bring to the community.
Eventually, development of a “run-of-river” station at Hay Rapids is planned, as well as one at Myrtle Falls.
The Voyageurs National Park Association also is opposed to the development at this point, and questions the information in the current environmental assessment report.
“I’ve always been, for many years now, watching over lake sturgeon spawn,” noted Robichaud. “And that’s kind of where this one here is a textbook case for me to get a bit more involved, to find out what’s happening, what’s going to happen.
“This is where the project kind of has a major impact on changing this river system,” he warned.
“I’ve got not much to do with biology,” Robichaud admitted. “[But] having met and talked and joined with working with the different projects of water, mostly aquatic research through the ministries, I have kind of picked up a bit on what they’re doing, why they’re doing it—and the species itself, understanding the biology of the species.
“So I’m quite well-versed on that now,” he added.
“I’m not the one to answer all questions, but I know quite a bit about it.”
Over the years, Robichaud has been active when it comes to proposed developments on river systems.
“My approach to participation in all these projects has been two-part,” he said. “One part trying to protect the scenic location, the very few we have left here in the north, and also looking at species and how it affects the aquatic environment.
“[I] have participated in a few of the developments which have come to the rivers and determining what’s the best recourse—not necessarily winning my cases but making everybody understand that we are not to do this anymore, referring to damages we’ve done in the past.
“And I’ve got clear cases of what we’ve done in the north, about what we’ve done in the north, and we’re still doing it today.”
As an example of past mistakes, Robichaud pointed to a design failure of a 1960s dam built on the Mattagami River, where every spring fish are drawn through the control gate and damaged, and ultimately ends up trapping the fish in ponds.
Now the company has to continually transport these fish back up to the head pond.
Most recently with a new dam development also on the Mattagami, Robichaud followed up on the studies done by the environmental firms to confirm whether or not there was not going to be damage done to the existing lake sturgeon population.
“[OPEG has] already done the design work,” he noted. “The first design, they failed to recognize what was there below the falls at the Namakan, so that kind of sparked me, ‘Here we go again, are we going to repeat history again?’
“I would not allow that to happen,” he vowed. “I would try to make changes to recognize what they have, to not change the aquatic habitat.”