• Trevor Greenway

Low river leaves locals high & dry

Jim Rudenberg just wants to take a shower.


The Wakefield resident has been out of running water at his Riverside home since Hydro-Quebec lowered the Gatineau River levels in late April. Rudenberg has installed a pipe under a culvert, across the road and into the deeper portion of the river to try and fill his shallow well, but it hasn’t been sustainable.


“We have no water into the house at all, unless I am successful in pumping it out of the river and into my well,” said Rudenberg, standing in the shallow waters of the Gatineau River May 16. “People have brought me drinking water.”


Hydro-Quebec dropped the Gatineau River level by nearly a metre – to 96 metres – on April 27 to repair the Chelsea Dam. Hydro-Quebec spokesperson Alain Paquette told the Low Down that, while the river level is low, it is still “within normal plant operating areas.”


Rudenberg was skeptical of the “one metre” stat. Standing in front of the culvert at 475 Riverside Drive, he pointed to the highwater mark a few feet above him. The water would typically come up to his waist from where he was standing, but over the last three weeks, the water has been just below his knees.


“Let’s call it four feet,” he said, wading through the water. “It’s such a big drop.”


Part of the frustration is that Rudenberg wasn’t informed by Hydro-Quebec or the municipality that the river levels would be dropped and that it could affect his water intake. Chelsea put a notice on its website on April 27 stating that “Hydro-Québec and the municipality of Chelsea are working closely together to limit the impact on the municipal water intake.”


But there was no notice sent to La Pêche residents and nothing posted on its website. Residents like Rudenberg had no time to plan.


“There was no warning,” he said. “It just bothers me not being able to shower, use your toilet — all those nice things that we enjoy. I really miss that.”


La Pêche Mayor Guillaume Lamoureux confirmed that he was not made aware of any planned work by Hydro-Quebec and added that they alerted Chelsea, but failed to send a similar notice to La Pêche. Hydro-Quebec said they recognized the mistake and will ensure they send notices out to all affected residents in the future.


Chelsea resident Heather Horak is in a similar situation at her Chelsea cottage. She’s had no running water, and the low levels have beached her boat, which she uses to arrive and depart from her home, since her property has no road service. The low levels have beached her vessel, and she has struggled to bring in supplies.


“My most immediate issue here is drinking water because I usually haul it across in the powerboat – the beached vessel – and it's really hard with the canoe,” said Horak. “That’s one of the issues — the shoreline is 20 feet of quicksand mud. My ‘driveway’ is beached.”

Chelsea resident Heather Horak's boat has been beached. Since her property has no road service, the boat is her only transportation to and from her cottage. Trevor Greenway photo

Horak was finally able to get her beached boat back in the water on May 15, but she’s still dealing with a front yard of quicksand.


Hydro-Quebec told the Low Down that Gatineau River levels would return to their standard 96.93 metres once the dam repair is finished near the end of May.

“The period during which the level had to be lowered was reduced to a minimum in order to limit the impacts of the works as much as possible, both on the citizens and on the wildlife,” added Paquette.


Concerning the impact on wildlife, director of science and policy at Friends of the Gatineau River (FOG) Ronnie Drever told the Low Down that low river levels can positively and negatively affect wildlife.


While river drawdowns can eliminate habitat for nearshore plants, animals and fish, predatory fish are actually “better fed because of the reduction in nearshore refuge for various species.” Drever added that low river levels can breed blue-green algae and other bacteria.


“A drawdown can cause an increase in nutrient concentrations and temperature of shallow water layers, which may lead to severe cyanobacterial blooms. Cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) can create a toxin harmful to human health,” explained Drever. “Because of the reduction in water levels, the typical shoreline would likely be exposed to less wave action erosion. However, fine sediments along the temporary shoreline can be eroded and moved downstream, which can increase turbidity. There is some evidence that concentrations of E. coli bacteria can increase with turbidity.”


Hydro-Quebec said they have environmental specialists closely monitoring the work and confirmed that they obtained all the required approvals to move forward.