Moose River water levels reach historic lows
A new sandbar (foreground) appeared in front of Moosonee following the breakup of Moose River last spring while the main sandbar continues to grow each year.
A local business owner believes hydroelectric dams operated by Ontario Power Generation, such as this one at Abitibi Canyon, are the cause of the lower water levels on Moose River.
Earl Cheechoo of Moose Factory remembers a time when the water levels on the Moose River and its tributaries were high enough that hunters could travel with relative ease.
“The water levels would really come up,” the deputy chief for Moose Cree First Nation said. “There’s a Cree word we would say: moosh-ka-hun. It means the rivers are very good and it’s a good time to go hunting.”
In the past, the Moose River and its tributaries were a crucial aspect of life for the Moose Cree people. For the Moose Cree, as for the other Cree people along the coast, the waterways were the main mode of transportation as the people moved with the seasons, going inland to their camps in the winter and heading out to the bay in the spring.
Even after settlements were established, the rivers continued to be an important part of
life, as hunters and trappers would climb aboard canoes to go hunting or check their traplines.
But in recent years, community members have noticed the water levels on the rivers have lowered.
Moose Cree Chief Norm Hardisty Jr. said the change has affected one of the cultural practices of the community: moose hunting.
“We’ve had a lot of difficulty in moving up the tributaries, the rivers,” Hardisty said. “It’s too dry to go up with canoes.”
Cheechoo said community members have reported having a hard time going up river, often ending up turning around to return home.
It is a trend that continues to get worse each year, Hardisty said.
“So you’ll find a lot of people get on the train and hunt in other areas down south,” he said.
Those that do hunt on the rivers wait until rainfall in October to head out. Cheechoo said he was able to go upriver when the region received rainfall as a part of the waning Hurricane Sandy passed over the region.
But the timing of rainfall is unpredictable.
“You can’t just go. You can’t say I’m going to go in three weeks time. You can’t plan like that,” Cheechoo said.
And as the water levels change, sandbars have emerged. They are “popping up all over the place,” Cheechoo said.
“I live along the river and there’s a completely new sandbar that came up,” he said. “Even going to Moosonee there’s a new sandbar that popped up this spring.”
The changes in water levels and emergence of sandbars are also impacting a local business that provides a crucial service to James Bay communities.
Moosonee Transportation Ltd. (MTL) ferries fuel and building supplies on a barge from Moosonee to Fort Albany, Kashechewan, Attawapiskat and Fort Severn twice a year on average.
But this season, MTL president Rheal Cool said the barges have had such a difficult time getting out to James Bay on Moose River that they had to bring in a tugboat from Labrador to help keep on schedule.
“Where we would normally take in one tide to get out, it’s taken us two tides which is a 12-hour loss and sometimes we’ve lost 24 or 36 hours to trying to get out,” he said.
The barges are capable of carrying 1,000 tonnes, but due to the water levels, the load is capped at 500 tonnes.
In the winter, the two barges are stored near the mouth of Store Creek in Moosonee, which Cool called a “natural harbour.” But last spring, crews had to work four “days and nights” to get them out.
“So we’re not going up the creek (this winter),” Cool said. “We’re going to Newfoundland and unless there is a definite effort to clean the channel here, we won’t be able to come back here.”
The Moose River near Moosonee and Moose Factory is an estuary where the oncoming river meets the incoming tides of the James Bay. This creates a silting effect and build-up of sedimentation, leading to sandbars, Cool said.
And while this effect is natural, Cool believes it has been “hastened” this past spring by the water flow management at the hydroelectric dams on the Abitibi River that are operated by Ontario Power Genernation (OPG).
“There was too much water let out of the dam too early,” Cool said. “And the ice wasn’t ready for breakup and so we had a breakup that caused a tremendous silting problem.”
The result was the ice being “ bulldozed into the waterways,” dragging and building up materials that increased sedimentation, according to Cool.
“So the normal silting action has been interfered with severely with due to proper control of water,” Cool said. “It’s causing a lot of grief.”
An OPG spokesperson disagreed with Cool’s assessment. Neal Kelly said this past spring was unique in terms of the warm temperatures that arrived mid-March, with temperatures in the Timmins area “well into the 20s.”
“The winter snow pack melted quickly and it was followed by a fair amount of rain in Timmins area and so you have all this water coming down the Moose River and when water’s ready to flow, it flows,” Kelly said. “We can’t hold water back - water in equals water going out.”
Kelly added that the lower water levels might have been “exasperated” this year by the lack of precipitation.
“So there is probably less water in the summer,” he said. “So it’s a whole number of factors.”
Regardless of cause, Cool said the best solution for his business to operate in the region is to have the river dredged.
“One possibility is just having barges from here come in from shallow drafts with little wee tugs and having a tug waiting out the mouth of the river,” Cool said. “We’re exploring all the avenues but it’s going to cause a lot of grief for all the people next year.”
Hardisty is not so sure what is causing the lower water levels.
“It could be the dams,” he said. “We know there’s a cycle where the water will come from higher areas, the southern parts of Ontario. And a lot of people are thinking that it’s a lack of rain or snowfall or what have you.”
In an email to Wawatay News, a Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) spokesperson said northeastern Ontario “continues to be dry and the entire region is experiencing effects of below-normal precipitation.”
Over a three-month period, the region has only received between 50-75 per cent of the expected amount of precipitation.
“And so far this month (September), the region has only received less than half of what would normally fall,” the spokesperson said.
Hardisty noted that water levels could be part of a larger problem.
“I don’t know if it’s global warming but the weather has changed quite a bit,” he said. “We seem to be having longer falls, shorter winters and spring comes earlier now.”
Cheechoo theorizes it is part of a global change. In the news, he has noticed record dry spells in various parts of the world.
And the Moose River is not the only waterway experiencing decreased water depth along James Bay.
“I’ve asked people in Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and even Peawanuck,” Hardisty said. “They’ve got the same problems.”
The result is that to continue the traditional moose hunt along the rivers as their ancestors have done for centuries, the Moose Cree are at the mercy of Mother Nature.
“If it’s raining all weekend in Timmins, it’s good for us because all that water comes down here,” Hardisty said.
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