Dams planned in Canada near Voyageurs, BWCAW

The Namakan River flows freely just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and into Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota's most pristine wild areas and part of the historic border canoe route.


The Namakan River flows freely just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and into Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota's most pristine wild areas and part of the historic border canoe route.

But Minnesotans and even the U.S. government may have little impact on a proposal to build a series of hydroelectric dams and generating stations just miles from the parks on the Ontario side of the border.

The first dam, at 6.4 megawatts, is now in the Canadian environmental impact study stage. Interested groups and individuals have until Friday to submit comments.

The project -- a few miles north of Lac La Croix and a few miles east of Namakan Lake -- is headed by the Ojibway Power and Energy Group, a collaboration between Chant Construction of southern Ontario and the Lac La Croix First Nation band of Ojibwe.

Supporters say the $20 million hydro project will help the Lac La Croix band diversify its economy, provide jobs and an infusion of cash from the sale of electricity. Supporters also note that the generator will be "run of river'' with no large reservoir crated, minimizing upstream impacts. Canadian officials say that kind of hydro power is considered green energy that avoids traditional air pollution and global warming emissions of fossil fuel generators.


But opponents say the project will destroy the wild nature of the Namakan River, change the river's natural ecosystem and threaten giant lake sturgeon, a species of concern. Studies by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and National Park Service confirmed the big, long-lived fish move freely up and down the Namakan River through the area where the dam would be built.

Michael Ward, superintendent of Voyageurs, Minnesota's only national park, said 75 percent of the water that enters Namakan Lake flows through the river that would be dammed. The U.S. National Park Service has submitted comments citing several concerns, most notably the possible impact on sturgeon.

"While we are all for green power and respectful of the First Nation People, we are fulfilling our responsibilities to ensure the proponent is considering the effect of the dam on our shared resources,'' Ward told the News Tribune.

Ward and other opponents have expressed frustration with the Canadian system of environmental review that allows the project's proposers to oversee the environmental review process. In the U.S., that duty is handled by regulatory agencies.

"Canada has a real push for green power on right now, and their system really is pushed by the proposers. And because there's a First Nation involved, it's been even harder to criticize or get [other] people to pay attention to the potential problems,'' said Cory MacNulty, executive director of the Voyageurs National Park Association.

The Rainy Lake Conservancy and Quetico Foundation also oppose the dam, with opponents urging action by Canadian and U.S. officials to let the International Joint Commission help decide the issue. The IJC was formed by the U.S. and Canada decades ago to solve border water issues, but both governments must formally petition it to get it involved. So far, they have not.

"We're trying to convince the elected officials on both sides of the border that they need to pay attention to this project and the issues it brings,'' MacNulty said. "We want people to send their comments to elected officials and not just the company.''

Lac La Croix Chief Leon Jourdain said environmental concerns have been taken into account.


"We believe our first priority and duty is to protect the land as stewards of the land, that we ensure that we do not violate or deface [or create a] massive type of destruction," Jourdain told the Fort Frances Times, adding that the project was "very carefully designed" and the band will be working very closely with the engineers "so that it does not create a monster, if you will, or create a generating station that could potentially do harm.

"This has not been an easy decision for our community -- just on the basis of defacing the natural beauty of anything. ... It's been going on for quite a few years to make that final decision.''

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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