“The Russians are Coming! The Russians are coming!” Okay, I don’t think that’s actually what Stephanie Weiss, assistant director of Save The River said when she called. It was more like, “Hey there are a bunch of Russian scientists coming to Clayton tomorrow and we’re going out on Jeff’s boat. Would you like to come along?” I love meeting people from other countries and I love being on the river so how could I say no?
The Russians were mainly hydrologists and freshwater specialists from Siberia. They’d traveled nearly 6,000 miles to learn from our mistakes. Who knew it would take a group of Russians from halfway around the world to finally help me gain a better understand of the water level issues on the St. Lawrence?
It started off with a huge surprise. These scientists represented Lake Baikal, which is the oldest and deepest lake in the world. Lake Baikal is over a mile deep and the largest freshwater lake in the world. Here, I thought that the Great Lakes system held that title.
My favorite part of the day was aboard the Fin and Feather. Captain Jeff Garnsey grew up at the head of Grindstone. As Fin and Feather floated in the water between Whiskey Island and Papoose Island, Jeff pointed to a line of cattails down river and told us that he used to boat between those two landmasses when he went from his place to Clayton. That was decades ago.
Two years ago, they dredged out a path between the cattails, but super low water the following winter caused the newly dredged pathway to fill in with clay sediment. You can drive a 4 x4 across that now.
Jeff moved the boat to the other side of Club Island. From there, Jeff described the importance of Flynn Bay as a spawning ground for bass, northern pike and muskie and how the changing hydrolevels have severally impacted the fish populations in the area. As we looked out at the shallow bay ringed by cattails, we spotted an eagle. It swooped down and caught a fish. It was an awesome sight.
Back at the Save The River office, I learned more about Lake Baikal. Besides being the largest body of freshwater in the world, 3,000 species of plant and animal life have been identified in Lake Baikal, 75% of which appears nowhere else in the world, making it a unique and precious ecosystem. Lake Baikal is surrounded by hydropower dams and has fluctuating water levels, similar to conditions on the St. Lawrence River. The team, which included hydrologists and conservationists, were on a fact-finding mission to the world’s other large freshwater system.
The group exchanged ideas about modern water levels management issues. Tom Brown, former Regional Director for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and current member of the International St. Lawrence River Board of Control, led the discussion. Brown told the Russian delegation he hopes they learn from our mistakes. When the current fifty-year-old water policy was cobbled together, its focus was on shoreline interests, seaway traffic and hydroelectric needs. Mother Nature was left out of the picture. Now, decades later, one might say, “Mother knows Best.” The old plan has had devastating effects on the St. Lawrence River ecosystem.
The Russians asked if we had studied how our water level policy affects the polar ice cap. The water we release in the fall goes into the Gulf Stream and up to the polar ice cap. Could what we’re doing now be accelerating the melting of the polar ice cap?
My in depth knowledge of our water level issue is fairly limited. Not that the information isn’t out there or isn’t available to me, but I’ve been more focused on how water levels affect me personally. In my head, it goes something like this. There are big evil guys downriver somewhere who keep opening the faucet and lowering the water level. For me, lower water means a shorter season on the river. I live on an island in a shallow bay. If there isn’t enough water to float our boat in the boathouse, we have to leave earlier. And leave during the best part of the season. I love September and October here on the river. Oh, and more bent props! Don’t think I need to explain that one.
Last season, we had to pull our wooden boats from the water on July 31st. We waited a bit longer than we normally would have because we wanted to have the boats in the Grenell Island Antique Boat Parade in late July. There was barely enough water in the boathouse to float them. Getting the boats on their cradles and hoisted was a struggle. I’m okay with occasionally having low water (What to do? Low Water, November, 2012) Occasionally. When we arrived in May, there was only a foot of water in the boathouse. It looked like we were in for another year of struggling to keep the boats in the water, keep the waterline in the water etc. etc. (Thank goodness Mother Nature brought us 11 inches of rain in the month of June.)
But after a day with scientists from U.S., Canada and Russian, my understanding was a little deeper. What we do here in our little section of the world affects far more than whether I can enjoy our wooden boats in August and September.
Mother Nature knows best. We need to go back to more natural highs and lows. I can put up with a few low years here and there and a few high years as well, but what I would truly miss is that eagle swooping out of the sky to catch its morning meal.
By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island
Lynn McElfresh presents two articles this month. This is the fifth of several articles she has presented this year in partnership with Save the River. Click here To see all of Lynn’s contributions to TI Life.
Wednesday, July 17, 6:00 p.m. at Bonnie Castle, 31 Holland St. Alexandria Bay, NY. Water Levels Hearing. All are welcome.