Residents of the Richelieu River and Lake Champlain area have worked hard to rebuild and prepare following a devastating and lengthy flood in 2011. Following a visit to the watershed by IJC commissioners in July, the IJC has been given the go-ahead by governments to launch new studies of flooding in the basin.
The spring flood of 2011 was caused by a combination of melting snow that saturated the soil and raised water levels, followed by heavy rain on April 13. The flood was record-setting --- at 103.57 feet (31.5 meters) or more than eight feet (2.4 meters) above the average lake level --- and took 67 days to recede. Tropical Storm Irene hit the region on Aug. 28, causing additional flooding in the lake basin and Richelieu River area.
On Sept. 7, 2016, the governments of Canada and the United States sent a letter to the IJC asking the Commission to carry out five years of research focusing on topics like flood causes, impacts, management practices, adaptation strategies and forecasting in the watershed. Additionally, over the next six months the IJC will appoint experts to a bi-national Lake Champlain-Richelieu River Study Board to oversee the research plans, conduct public outreach and provide recommendations to the IJC.
In July, commissioners visited the Quebec area, meeting with Parks Canada and municipal leaders around the Richelieu River before touring the Chambly Canal and the site of the built-but-unused Fryers Dam. Commissioners were able to see areas impacted by the floodwaters and find out how people have been adapting. During the 2011 flood, roads were washed out, drinking water was compromised by damaged water mains, and homes were flooded, damaged or destroyed. Commissioners also visited Missisquioi Bay on the northern end of the lake.
Also in July, commissioners went to the US side to tour New York’s headwaters of Lake Champlain with representatives of The Nature Conservancy. Commissioners ferried across Lake Champlain to meet with representatives of the Lake Champlain Basin Program and other officials from New York and Vermont. They also checked out previously flooded areas on the US side of the Lake Champlain basin, and heard presentations on the Vermont Rivers Programs and from the University of Vermont.
IJC Canadian Section Chair Gordon Walker said the IJC is continuing to look for early forecasting means to warn people along the Richelieu River and Lake Champlain about potential floods. It also is attempting to figure out if structural solutions could reduce or alleviate future flooding, since those tend not to be unique events but rather ones that repeat every 10-20 years.
IJC US Section Chair Lana Pollack said part of the IJC’s focus in the basin is to do a better job of tapping into local knowledge from stakeholder groups and the public. Pollack said the commissioners gained a better understanding of how natural systems like wetlands can help protect infrastructure and roads during floods better than artificial constructions like culverts. While it is impossible to fully protect everything against floods, restricting what can be built in floodplains is a good step toward preventing major damage, she said.
Canadian Commissioner Richard Morgan, who lived near the Richelieu River as a child, said he gained an even better understanding of the Lake Champlain area, its history and its people, adding that the meetings were productive. He said he is encouraged by the “engagement and energy” of the people in the area.
Then-US Commissioner Dereth Glance, who left the IJC in September, said a big takeaway for her was that “the passionate people and strong network of organizations work well together to address a crisis, whether it be flooding or impaired water quality.” Flooding and high water levels can negatively impact water quality too, she said, due to debris, fertilizers and other materials normally on land getting into the water system.
Water levels and flood control are issues full of important considerations for residents, businesses, cities and the environment alike. While mechanical measures may not be sufficient or ideal to prevent flooding without major disruptions to the water system, local efforts to adapt in case of another flood are one way to keep safe from an unpredictable climate.
New studies of Flooding in the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River Basin
By Kevin Bunch, IJC
The IJC will soon embark on new investigations into flooding in the Richelieu River-Lake Champlain basin, including the causes, impacts, risks and solutions. The governments of Canada and the United States announced support for this work in September.
The work is set to take place over five years, with researchers studying the causes and impacts of previous floods, including the devastating one in 2011. The IJC will assess the best approaches to managing flood plains, analyze the benefits of flood forecasting and real-time mapping of inundations, evaluate adaptation and mitigation approaches, determine the efficacy of potential flood control systems, and determine their impact on water resources. The work includes creating computer models of the basin.
Over the next six months, the IJC will appoint a binational Lake Champlain-Richelieu River Study Board of experts to oversee and implement the study plans. Study Board members also will conduct outreach and engagement, write reports and make recommendations to the IJC. Their work will be used by the IJC as part of its own report and recommendations to the governments once the five-year study period is complete in 2021.