Unprecedented flooding in 2011 in Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River, which drains the lake north into Quebec, is prompting scientists in the United States and Canada to begin a long process of determining whether anything can be done to reduce future problems.
The first steps, being taken now, include developing detailed maps that would show the effects of flooding at different levels. Future steps could include recommendations for flood control structures, such as a dam that was begun in the 1930s in Quebec but was never finished.
Low-lying areas around the lake in Vermont and New York were inundated by the spring runoff that kept the lake above flood stage for more than two months in 2011.
In Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, a Quebec city of just under 95,000 about 20 miles north of the border, the two months of flooding began in mid-April and lasted until mid-June, affected about 3,000 homes in low-lying areas.
“I think when you look at the number of houses and the population impacted, it was much more on the Canadian side in 2011 than the U.S. side,” said Keith Robinson, the director of the New England Water Science Center for the U.S. Geological Survey, who is working on the flood study this year by helping develop detailed flood maps of the lake and the river.
While the intervening years haven’t presented flooding problems, memories of 2011 remain for people in Quebec.
“Now we are aware of that and we are going to be more prepared,” said Jean-Marc Paquet, the city’s chief building inspector. “Every year I prepare all my teams to be ready for a flood, every year.”
Spring flooding is nothing new in Lake Champlain or along the Richelieu River, but the scope of the 2011 flooding and the fear that more climate change-induced flooding is likely as time goes on prompted the governments of both countries to begin looking for long-term solutions.
“The governments recognize, and everybody living along the lake and the river recognize, that 2011 was bad and they’re likely to see it again,” said Dereth Glance, one of three U.S. commissioners on the six-member International Joint Commission, the organization overseeing the study.
The IJC was created by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the two countries to manage boundary water issues. In 2013, the IJC recommended a five-year, $14 million study of flooding along the waterways to see if anything could be done to minimize the effects of flooding.
But the recommendation didn’t come with full funding. The first steps in that process are underway now with scientists developing detailed, state-of-the-art flood maps. The first phase is costing about $1 million, paid by both governments.
“If we don’t have a common base for understanding how the water flows and where it goes when it floods, we can’t make rational policy decisions in the United States or Canada,” said Glance.
It’s the third time the IJC has addressed flooding in the Lake Champlain Richelieu River basin. In 1937, it approved construction of a flood control dam near Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. Part of what is now known as the Fryers Dam was subsequently built, but it was never finished and put into operation.
In 1981, after a six-year study, the commission concluded that flood forecasting and flood plain regulation were desirable. It also noted that a flood control system could be built. But any decision about whether to proceed was left to the governments. No action was taken.
There is no discussion now about reviving the dam projects. Rather, Robinson said this year’s work is developing detailed flood maps that are being produced with the help of specialized radar imaging known as LIDAR. Future studies could be much broader.
“Really, (it could be) everything from the modeling work that we talked about, to identifying what kind of structures may or may not be needed to even socio-economic studies,” Robinson said. “You know, what are the social impacts, what are the economic needs for this? What are communities in both countries willing to accept?”
Back in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Paquet said he’s not waiting for a solution from the provincial or federal government. He thinks the solution is local.
“You can’t fight nature; nature is strong,” Paquet said. “I don’t think the solution is mankind’s. I think that we can prevent things by making better buildings and choosing better ways to stay where we are.”
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