Former OPG manager talks water level management

FITZROY HARBOUR – The Bethel St. Andrew’s Men’s Ministry brought in some experience Saturday morning (June 15) to help shed some light on the Ottawa River water system and this spring’s extreme flooding.

The Men’s Ministry’s monthly meeting, a combination of breakfast and conversation with a different guest each month, hosted retired Ottawa Power Generation (OPG) operations manager Chris Tonkin Saturday to discuss an issue on everyone’s mind these days – what’s behind the extreme flooding West Carleton residents faced this spring?

Since the Ottawa River receded, residents and politicians have finally found some time to ask questions and start looking for answers as to why flooding has been so severe in West Carleton two of the last three years. While some feel climate change is behind the flooding, a growing and vocal group believe flooding may have been man-made, by mistake or greed, in the management of Ottawa River dams.

Photos circulating on Facebook of dry riverbeds upstream of West Carleton taken during the height of flooding, only turned up the volume on those theories.

Tonkin says those low water areas are all part of the strategy to handle the spring freshet.

“How come they’re low up there and we’re flooding?” Tonkin asked before answering his own question. “That’s the strategy. We know the water is coming. It can be empty there and three or for feet higher than normal here. But the water is coming. That’s the strategy.”

Tonkin, who retired in 2010, provided an overview of the operations of the Ottawa River Basin including interactions among the various stakeholders, the operating philosophy and strategies in its management during his presentation.

“This year they diverted the water in the north,” Tonkin said. “That’s a nice thing, but the water is still there. If we didn’t divert at Cobanga it would have been a lot worse in Ottawa.”

The water is diverted at the Cobanga Diversion, which eventually discharges to the Gatineau River.

Tonkin says every organization along the river is in constant communication to try to minimize the negative effects of water levels during the spring freshet (as well as the rest of the year).

“You make a change, you contact everybody,” Tonkin said.

Tonkin said the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board works well to make sure all the stakeholders are informed in issues related to water levels.

“They meet every day and share information,” Tonkin said. “I would say it works quite well.”

Tonkin feels there was just too much snowpack, with too much water content, and the dam operators did what they could.

“That’s the northern water coming down,” Tonkin said of the second peak. “We held it back as long as we could. A breach of a dam is about the worst think that can happen. When the water got to the top of the dam, they had to let it go.”

Tonkin said in fall the OPG holds back as much water as it can.

“In winter it’s hard to manipulate the water,” Tonkin said. “But by spring, it will be as low as it goes.”

Tonkin says the OPG does what it can to limit flooding but pointed out it is the municipality that approves building permits.

“My thinking is, anyone who builds in a flood plain, shouldn’t,” he said.

Coun. Eli El-Chantiry was one of the roughly 21 in attendance to hear Tonkin speak.

“Today you are here, and shedding some light,” the councillor said. “This is the most intelligent presentation we’ve had since the 2017 flooding. We need to have some clarity. My community keeps asking should we keep building?”

Tonkin, who took several questions from those in attendance, had a rhetorical question of his own.

“What entity has responsibility for flooding?” Tonkin asked. “The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. That’s it. End of story.”