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Op-eds

26 August 2009August 26, 2009

Water-export plan no Grand Canal

National Post, p. FP-15

Water-export plan no Grand Canal

Frank Quinn's comment on my Northern Waters water-export plan ("Diversion proposal doesn't hold water," Aug. 8) offers peripheral objections while portraying it as a version of the grandiose and totally unrealistic Grand Canal project of the 1960s. He mostly ignores the plan's limited impact on the environment and its economic and financial advantages for Quebec and all other parties involved. If Mr. Quinn's points are all he can muster, I'm confident that more and more people will see its advantages as we try to solve our water management problems.

My plan's relevance is precisely that it is a radically different approach than the one proposed by Thomas Kierans. It would cost at least 10 times less, would not require the construction of a huge dam in James Bay and a gigantic canal to bring the water south, and would rely on modest new or existing hydro works instead of requiring the construction of several nuclear plants to pump the water. Its overall scope bears no comparison at all with the Grand Canal.

Using an alarmist tone, however, Mr. Quinn raises various other boogeymen that presumably make the project unfeasible. He talks about the frighteningly large increase to the Ottawa River's 1,290 cubic metres per second annual average flow that the diversion of 800 cubic metres per second of water from three James Bay rivers would constitute. As someone with three decades of experience building hydroelectric dams, I can assure him that there is nothing to be frightened of here. The environmental impact on the Ottawa River would be minimal since its flow would be kept stable and well below natural flood levels.

Mr. Quinn then raises the likely opposition of the Ontario government to the idea of exporting all this water from the Great Lakes basin, as well as the outrage of residents along the lakes and the St. Lawrence River if that water was not available downstream to serve the existing hydroelectric, shipping, shore property, recreational and environmental interests in both countries.

As we all know, the level of the Great Lakes has already been dropping for many years and many experts predict a further 30% drop in the amount of water flowing into them due to climatic changes. I very clearly explained that part of the newly available quantity of water could be used to regulate the level of the Saint Lawrence River and Great Lakes. My plan would partly solve this problem of declining water levels, not make it worse.

This would indeed be part of any negotiations between the two countries and the various provincial and state jurisdictions. If they wished, Ontarians and Americans may then also choose to use a certain quantity of the available reserves for their freshwater-consumption needs, some of which would flow through the Chicago Canal. Mr. Quinn finds it even harder to justify shipping these agreed upon surpluses through the Chicago Canal, citing the low limits of volume that can flow through it, as if I had proposed to export the entire 800 cubic metres per second to the Midwest.

Finally, Mr. Quinn raises various agreements between jurisdictions and studies by the International Joint Commission that do not anticipate, or prohibit, such water diversion, which leads him to conclude that my plan will be unacceptable to all parties. But the current legal framework simply reflects the state of thinking as it was several years ago, and does not take into account what is likely to happen due to climatic changes. That's precisely why we need to have another open and realistic debate on this issue.

I am aware that there are legal obstacles and that decision makers and the public needs to be convinced of the necessity of a plan such as the one I propose. That is why the Montreal Economic Institute has seen fit to publish my study. So why not debate its merits?

F. Pierre Gingras is an Associate Researcher at MEI and a specialist in industrial engineering, worked for 31 years on the construction of hydroelectric projects at Hydro-Qubec.


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