Citizens of a picturesque town outside of Ottawa lament the expansion of a hydro dam they claim will ruin a pice of paradise
Picture a lovely, quiet town surrounded by old stone mills that have scarcely changed in a hundred years. The main street is full of charming shops selling local crafts and restaurants that attract interesting visitors — including recently Justin Trudeau and family.
Right through the heart of town runs a magical river with cascading waterfalls. It’s a special, loved place where people fish, kids swim and wildlife abounds. This is Almonte, a town of 5,000 people about 50 km southwest of Ottawa, recently voted one of the 10 most charming towns in Canada by Expedia travel site.
Alongside turtles and herons, this section of the Mississippi River (no connection to the famous U.S. river) is also home to the endangered Rapid’s clubtail dragonfly. You can sense the river running through Almonte is magical, but the dragonfly’s presence here highlights how truly rare this setting is.
Yet right in the centre of this enchanted river, a company called Enerdu Power Systems wants to add a massive new powerhouse to a small existing generating station, blasting the riverbed to increase water flow and installing a dam over top of the cascades.
Although the town of Almonte has fought this dam tooth and nail for years, its construction is due to start this week.
Along with several dozen other Almonte residents, I protested this dam last week by wading into the river. We stretched across it in a line, holding hands, desperately hoping for publicity to attract the attention of someone with power to stop the company at the final hour. We started a petition to Catherine McKenna, federal minister of the environment, which includes signatures from singers Bruce Cockburn and Paul Simon, as well as cartoonist Gary Larson.
This is truly a David versus Goliath story. The town of Almonte has never wanted this project and has been fighting for more than four years to stop it. Despite the strong local opposition, including from Mayor Shaun McLaughlin, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) has approved the project. Jeff Cavanagh, owner of Enerdu, is determined and has ample resources.
Yes, his dam will generate electricity. But, actually, no new energy will be added to the overall grid because the Appleton dam just upstream will lose whatever power it gains due to changing water levels, according to a report by the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists.
Cavanagh also says his project will create jobs, which is true. But they’re just temporary jobs. Once the project is done, there will be, at most, a few employees.
Unlike another power plant downstream, which is owned and operated by the town, Cavanagh’s privately owned plant will add no new revenue to Almonte.
Something is wrong here.
There is an endangered dragonfly making its habitat at the exact location Cavanagh wants to dynamite to build his power plant.
The MNR is mandated to facilitate renewable energy but it is also tasked with implementing the Endangered Species Act. So where do the MNR’s priority lie? Given that there is another power plant upstream that can easily handle increased capacity, the answer should be clear.
The MNR insists the dragonfly does not make its habitat here, even though there have been documented sightings of the dragonfly in areas impacted by this project.
We believe the entire Environmental Assessment conducted by provincial authorities on this Enerdu project was based on insufficient and outdated facts.
The report by the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalist documents how the highwater levels caused by Enerdu water control devices already in place are drowning 600 hectares of protected wetlands.
Now Cavanagh wants to expand further down the river and add a dam that will control even more of the river’s flow. Does the government of Ontario serve the people of Ontario or Jeff Cavanagh?
There is so much wrong with this project, which will forever mar the beauty of Almonte with unsightly fences, safety notices, warning systems and restricting buoys. The part of the river where children now swim will be offlimits.
A river that was once teeming with life and the jewel of our town will be harnessed like a wild animal in a cage.
I stood beside the river last week with a native elder and asked him if this would have been a sacred place. “Most definitely,” he said.
Sometimes you do know what you’ve got before it’s gone.
Linda Manzer is a guitar maker living in Almonte.
Photo: Emma Jackson