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Draining of Rocky Island Lake in northern Ontario

Petition: No. 70

Issue(s): Biological diversity, compliance and enforcement, natural resources, transport, and water

Petitioner(s): Tony Martin, Member of Provincial Parliament, Sault Ste. Marie

Date Received: 17 February 2003

Status: Completed

Summary: This petition concerns the draining of Rocky Island Lake near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Rocky Island Lake is a man-made reservoir created to generate hydroelectric power. The petitioner alleged that the level of the lake was drawn down substantially in the summer of 2002 in order to meet rising demands for power. He also claims that the draining of the lake led to the destruction of fish, fish habitat, and wildlife habitat, and that it inhibited boat navigation, hindered local businesses, and prevented local residents from enjoying the lake as usual. The petitioner asked Fisheries and Oceans Canada to investigate a possible contravention of the federal Fisheries Act. This is the first petition submitted by a provincial Member of Parliament. 

Federal Departments Responsible for Reply: Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Petition

January 15, 2003

Ms. Johanne Gélinas
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development
Office of the Auditor General of Canada
240 Sparks Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0G6

Dear Ms. Gélinas:

Please find enclosed my completed petition to the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. I am requesting that you investigate the government's role in protecting the water levels and fish habitat of Rocky Island Lake in northern Ontario from the hydroelectric generation company Great Lakes Power.

In the summer of 2002, Great Lakes Power took advantage of the deregulated power market in Ontario and the resulting skyrocketing power rates by increasing their power output. In order to do increase their power generation, they drew down the reservoir to record low levels, effectively draining Rocky Island Lake. This in turn destroyed fish habitat, made the lake impossible to navigate by boat, and seriously harmed the public's enjoyment of this lake.

I am requesting that you investigate the role of the Canadian government in protecting fish habitat and in enforcing the Fisheries Act. In particular, it is my feeling that Great Lakes Power contravened Section 35 of the Fisheries Act, which states that "no person shall carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption, or destruction of fish habitat."

I look forward to your response in this matter, as it is of great concern to the public and particularly to the businesses and residents of the Rocky Island Lake area.

Sincerely,

[Original signed by Tony Martin, Member of Provincial Parliament]

Tony Martin, MPP
Sault Ste. Marie
Queen's Park Office
Room 201, North Wing
Legislative Building
Queen's Park, Toronto
Ontario M7A 1A5

 

Constituency Office
180 Bay Street
Sault Ste.Marie
Ontario P6A 6S2

 


Petition to the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development
Regarding the Destruction of Fish Habitat in Rocky Island Lake
Submitted by Ontario MPP Tony Martin
January 16, 2003

1. Background

On May 1, 2002, the Ontario government deregulated the electricity market in Ontario, resulting in a competitive bidding process for the sale of power to consumers in Ontario. The high demand for power in the heat of the summer in 2002 resulted in skyrocketing prices for electricity. All of the power generating stations in Ontario were operating at top capacity in order to provide adequate supply and in order to make huge profits from the sale of their electricity.

Great Lakes Power is a generating company formerly owned by the province's Ontario Power Generation that is now owned by Brascan. Great Lakes Power owns the hydroelectric generating station that creates the reservoir of Rocky Island Lake. Great Lakes Power decided, in order to increase the power they generate, to draw down Rocky Island Lake. This resulted in water levels so low that the lake became impossible to navigate by boat, reducing the lake to isolated pools of stagnant water separated by extensive sandbars.

When this generating station was publicly owned, it was responsible to the people of Ontario and accountable to the public interest and particularly those people living nearby. As a result, the water levels of Rocky Island Lake were never reduced this drastically. However, Great Lakes Power is motivated solely by the ability to increase profits by selling power on a very hot market, and as a result maximized its power production without any concern for the impact to the local community or the fish habitat in the lake.

The draining of the lake had severe and immediate impacts:

  • The water receded into small, isolated, and stagnant pools of water which were warmer than the lake would have been naturally. The walleye, pickerel, and other fish in the lake that ended up in these pools became sick and died.
  • The shoreline habitat for loons, ducks, and cranes were destroyed.
  • Moose were in danger of getting mired in the lake bed.
  • The lake became impossible to navigate, creating hardship for local fishing and boating. Boat launches became unusable.
  • Local outfitters and tour operators were forced to shut down elements of their business, causing economic hardship.
  • Local residents were prevented from their usual enjoyment of the public lake.

While the Government of Ontario deregulated the power system in May, 2002, it failed to implement rules to protect the water levels at the more than 200 hydroelectric generating stations that are owned by more than 80 different companies. The government has initiated a water management planning process, but it will only be required for the most sensitive sites in the province, and these will only be completed by March 31, 2004. That means that there are no guidelines preventing similar reductions of water levels on this or other lakes in the province in the meantime, and the end result may be inadequate to prevent all such events in the future.

2. Petition Request

I am requesting that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans conduct an investigation to determine whether Great Lakes Power contravened Section 35 of the Fisheries Act, which states that "no person shall carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption, or destruction of fish habitat."

In addition, I am requesting that the Commissioner determine whether the Government of Ontario acted irresponsibly in allowing private generating stations total discretion in regulating water levels for a period of two years after the deregulation of the electricity market.

Further, I am requesting that the Commissioner determine whether the Department of Fisheries and Oceans provided adequate monitoring and enforcement of the Fisheries Act in Ontario, particularly in light of the actions of Great Lakes Power in draining Rocky Island Lake.

3. Federal Department

While the provincial government should have great concern for this case, it has shown little interest in protecting the habitat and economic interests in the lake. It ceased enforcing the provisions of the Fisheries Act in 1997, and has relied on the Federal government to monitor and enforce its provisions. As a result, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is responsible for its enforcement.

4. Supporting Information

Please find attached two documents*. The first is a collection of four photographs of Rocky Island Lake taken in 1982, showing the water levels at their normal.

The second is a photograph of Rocky Island Lake after it was drained, taken in the summer of 2002.

Respectfully submitted by Ontario MPP Tony Martin on January 16, 2003.

Signature: [Original signed by Tony Martin] Date: [Original dated January 16, 2003]

*[attachments not available]

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Minister's Response: Fisheries and Oceans Canada

June 26, 2003

Mr. Tony Martin, M.P.P.
Room 201, North Wing
Legislative Building
Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario
M7A 1A5

Dear Mr. Martin:

Thank you for sharing your concerns about Rocky Island Lake in Northern Ontario in Environmental Petition (#70) dated January 16, 2003. The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development brought your petition to my attention pursuant to Section 22 of the Auditor General Act.

I understand from your letter that the main concerns relate to the Federal Government's role in protecting the water levels and fish habitat of Rocky Island Lake. You specifically requested that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans conduct an investigation to determine whether Great Lakes Power Limited contravened Section 35 of the Fisheries Act which states that "no person shall carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption, or destruction of fish habitat." You have also expressed concern with the navigability of these waters.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada staff in the Sault Ste. Marie office have the situation at Rocky Island Lake under investigation. Site inspections are planned for the spring and summer of 2003 by District Fishery Officers and biologists to more fully assess the implications of reservoir draw downs on any fish habitat and navigation. Some of these inspections will be conducted in conjunction with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. We are also assisting the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources in the development of a new Water Management Plan for the Mississaga River system that will address habitat and navigation concerns.

Thank you for your interest in this issue. I appreciate that it is of great concern to the public and those who live and work in the Rocky Island Lake area.

Yours truly,

[Original signed by Robert G. Thibault, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans]

Robert G. Thibault