The Endangered River

Sunday 26 October 2008, by Alexis de Gheldere

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

The Bureau d’Audience Publiques sur l’Environnement has begun consultations on Hydro-Quebec’s planned construction of four dams on the Romaine river in the eastern part of the province. Journalist/filmmaker Alexis de Gheldere belongs to the select few who have navigated the 712km river in its entirety. It took 46 days to complete this voyage along one of the last major rivers of Quebec that has, so far, remained untouched.

The current is too strong, the rapids are too powerful. “Pull the cord towards you! That’s it, gently.” On one of its banks, my guide and I are walking single file, each holding on to fifteen foot ropes that are attached to either end of our small boat, trying to guide it around nature’s obstacles. A less well-known technique than portage, cordelle is indispensable when trying to navigate through one of the most difficult stretches of water in the province.

For three weeks we have done cordelle after cordelle, but this one is different. We are entering into one of the areas of the river that would be affected by a hydroelectric project. We are 263km from where the Romaine joins the St. Lawrence and in a few years these rapids could become intermittent.

Depending on the water level, which will fluctuate behind the dam at a depth of around 16.5 metres, these rapids will disappear and reappear as they lie just upstream of the reservoir. This is not the case for the vast majority of rapids that we will encounter during the four weeks that we have left on our trek. Aside from a few rare exceptions, the rest will disappear for good. If the four dam hydro-electric project goes ahead, the river will be flooded and more than a third of it will be turned into reservoirs. A dam means a reservoir, a reservoir means no rapids. According to Hydro-Quebec’s study on the potential impact of the project, the Romaine’s speckled trout will disappear with the rapids while the newly calmed waters will be stocked with Atlantic salmon and lake trout, which can both tolerate such an environment.

Hydro-electricity… still

Hydro-Quebec estimates that building will take place between 2009 and 2020, resulting in the creation of a thousand jobs, the addition of 1550 megawatts to their grid, and the flooding of 279 km2 of land.

All the major rivers between Tadoussac and Sept-Îles have already been harnessed. Is it necessary to invest even more into hydro-electric power given that Quebec already relies on it for 97% of its energy need? Is the diversification of energy production desirable? With the current trend toward greener, more renewable forms of energy production, such as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal, is this not an opportunity to get ahead of the global curve?

Last Ones Standing

If the Romaine project gets the green light, it will represent the 14th of 16 major waterways in Quebec to be harnessed for hydro-electrical or other purposes.

The signs of what may be in store for the river are already showing. On our way downstream we see current measuring stations, the clearing of proposed dam sites, trees and rocks marked for removal, and many helicopter landing pads. Even though the project has not yet passed the public scrutiny phase, the sound of helicopters that fills the air from dawn until dusk attests to the fact that preparations in this previously untouched region are well under way.

It is often said that hydro-electricity emits fewer pollutants than most other conventional sources of energy- and it does. But in terms of its impact on the ground it is second to none. Between a free-flowing river and a string of stagnant reservoirs punctuated by kilometre-long dry beds, there is a larger difference than Hydro-Quebec’s “green energy” marketing campaign would have you believe.

The Ripple Effect

Besides hunters, fishermen, and a few First Nations, there are blackbears, caribou, wolves, and moose that call the Romaine home. Although they cannot utter a word, their behaviour speaks for itself. The flooding of a river can permanently alter an animal’s range. Bears, for instance, of which we saw nine, may no longer be able to cross the river, as Hydro-Quebec says it will be widening it by anywhere from five to one hundred fold depending on the location. The blackbear is a strong swimmer (one swam across the river right in front of us) so it may manage, but as for the caribou and the moose, both of which the Federal government has classified as endangered in the region, it will be impossible.

If the contamination of reservoir water with mercury is widely known, other consequences are less so. For example, dams limit the flow of sediment, which accumulates at their bases rather than at the mouth of the river, where it plays a vital role in the food chain by supporting the development of, amongst other things, phytoplankton. These waters, lacking their usual supply of nutrients, flow to the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and contribute to the depletion of the stocks of the Grand Banks. This was the conclusion drawn by H.J.A Neu in a study finding that overfishing was not the only factor at play; the quantity of fresh water received and the time of year when it is released are pivitol- dams retain the spring melt water until the winter and release it when electricity demands are highest.

On the continental divide

The Romaine’s source is on the Quebec/Labrador border along the Laurentian continental divide, which separates water flows from the Arctic and the Atlantic. To get there we traversed 212km of lakes and rivers- against the current- in thirteen days. Our boat on our backs, flies biting between our fingers, painfully long portages over non-existent trails, our feet unstable on slippery rocks, setting up camp every night only to have to pack it back up each morning, shooting a documentary; the effort we expended was enormous. The effort to find financing for the project was more so.

While contemplating the source of this river, I cannot help but think that in playing sorcerer’s apprentice, the reign of homo industrialus, of which I am a part, has distanced himself from his own source- a harmonious state of equilibrium that he would not readily risk. Creating (or reestablishing) mutually beneficial interactions within our ecosystem is the real art form. Upon climbing to the summit of a small mountain we witnessed beauty as never before- a filigree of lakes stretching to infinity and the ineffability of breathing in eternity.

Alexis de Gheldere is a journalist/filmmaker. He will be giving a conference on October 24, at 4:30pm in the salle Marie-Gérin-Lajoie at UQAM, as part of the Festival international du film d’aventure de Montréal.For more information: Largely self-financed, the project welcomes donations on its webpage.

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