Extremes caused water levels to fluctuate outside rule curve

Peggy Revell

Water levels on the Rainy and Namakan systems have seen two different extremes this year.
Such was the message delivered during the joint annual meeting of the International Rainy Lake Board of Control and the International Rainy River Water Pollution Board last Tuesday evening at La Place Rendez-Vous here.
“We had one of the driest years on record in the Lac La Croix basin upstream over the winter—it was the fourth-lowest precipitation over the winter in 101 years of record—so very dry,” noted Rick Cousins, engineering advisor with the IRLBC and IRRWPB, which are mandated by the International Joint Commission to monitor the two basins.
“It was also very dry right down through the Rainy and Namakan basin, and that set up the condition for this spring that were very low, as well,” he added.
This was followed by above normal spikes of precipitation in June, followed by “really extreme rainfall again” on certain dates in July, said Cousins, including more than three inches of rain one week and seven inches of rainfall at another point.
“That’s an awful lot of rain,” he remarked.
For the Namakan system, this meant water levels sat below the rule curve—the water level range set out by the IJC to dictate when gates at the dams along the system should be opened or closed—before shooting up to above it.
The same held true for Rainy Lake, where water levels remained below the rule curve until also going up quickly to the top of it.
“It’s quite unusual for this to go from such extreme dry conditions to wet,” said Cousins, adding the rules for managing the water levels through the dam system “can’t cover every situation.”
Water levels in both the Namakan and Rainy Lake systems have since returned to within the rule curve.
During the open portion of the meeting, where the public could voice their concerns about issues within the basin, one camp owner on hand reported that he was seeing either “flooding or drought” in the north arm of Rainy Lake when other parts of the lake still were registering as being within the rule curve according to the gauges—suggesting more gauges are needed throughout the basin.
This issue is a part of what IRLBC board member Glenn Witherspoon labelled as “localized extreme events,” which are becoming more common in the region.
For example, a rain storm will hit one area of the lake with a large amount of precipitation while other areas will see nothing at all, he noted.
“This is good information for the rule curve review,” said engineering advisor Ed Eaton.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Crane Lake and Namakan, and perhaps there’s a need to maybe tie the two gauges together and come up with some sort of average level that takes both into consideration,” he conceded.
“And perhaps there’s a need to have the traditional gauge and two on Rainy Lake, and maybe take a weighted average of all those gauges and see that it’s tied to that.
“It’s a big lake and levels can vary a lot,” Eaton added. “And so to take into consideration sampling around the lake to get your levels, that would help you guys out by bringing you into the equation.”
Another concern raised at last Tuesday’s meeting was the proposed hydropower development on the Namakan River by the Ojibwe Power and Energy Group.
“We feel it’s a very important issue,” said Kurt Lysne, speaking on behalf of the Rainy Lake Conservancy and the Voyageur’s National Park Association—two groups which oppose the development.
“And we would very much appreciate any effort you people could make to give us any feedback you have and become involved in the process,” Lysne added, reiterating the organizations’ concerns about the effect the dams would have on the sturgeon population and other wildlife.
The OPEG released its environmental report this past winter for public and agency review and comment, noted IRRWPB co-chair Melanie Neilson, and will be releasing its final environmental comment possibly this September or October.
The IJC is following the issue and sharing information with the various involved agencies, added Neilson.
But she noted that as per former commissioner Allen Olson, the IJC currently has no jurisdiction since the proposed development falls within Canadian boundaries only.
Reviews planned
With the IJC planning to review the rule curve as of 2015, Neilson gave an update concerning the research and preparation for it.
“The resource agencies in the basin are conducting a considerable amount of monitoring and research, and all those will provide key information that will be very useful in this review,” she remarked.
“However, it was acknowledged that there are some gaps in terms of the assessment, in terms or the information required for the assessment,” she noted.
Last summer, the 2000 rule curve working group released a plan of study for the evaluation of the IJC order for the Rainy and Namakan lakes, as well as the Rainy River, which recommends “key studies that need to be conducted in order to provide us with the information for that review and assessment,” Neilson explained.
The boards and IJC staff currently are working to secure funding to implement the studies.
Also on the horizon is a review of the binational management of the Lake of the Woods basin and Rainy River basin by the IJC, which both the Canadian and U.S. governments have requested.
Neilson said this possibly could include a merger and expansion of the mandate of the two boards, or a new IJC board set for Lake of the Woods.
This review will look at recommendations “on how to improve the binational managements of those basins,” she explained.
“Perhaps look at some different issues that the IJC should be involved in, and what should be the IJC’s role in addressing those issues,” she added.
Neilson said a task force has been established to prepare recommendations—and has scheduled three public consultation sessions so far which are open to “anyone and everyone.”
The three meetings include one this coming Tuesday (Aug. 31) at 7 p.m. at the AmericInn (formerly the Holiday Inn) over in International Falls.
The other two are slated for Wednesday, Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. at the Best Western Lakeside Inn in Kenora and Thursday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. at the community center in Warroad, Mn.
More information on the task force can be found at http://ijc.org/conseil_board/rainy_river_watershed