Rainy River water levels may threaten hydro turbines

Record-high water levels on the Rainy River are posing a problem for hydro infrastructure — and part of the river’s dam may have to be closed, officials say.
Located 4 km from the outlet of Rainy Lake, the Fort Frances generating station is a run-of-river plant. The station’s civil structure extends across Rainy Lake and the US-Canada border and joins with Boise Cascade’s dam facilities located in International Falls, Minnesota. (Lee Grim/International Joint Commission )

Record-high water levels on the Rainy River are posing a problem for hydro infrastructure — and part of the river’s dam may have to be closed, officials say.

If flood waters get into the generators, they`ll lose some of their control over water levels, said Matt DeWolfe, engineering advisor to the International Joint Commission's International Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board.

“High river levels … below the dam has caused some issues at the dam on the American side in their hydroelectric facilities,” he said.

“So in the power house, where the turbines are, the water has been coming into the dam because of the very high water levels downstream.”

If those turbines go down, the dam loses some of its capacity to channel water out of Rainy Lake, DeWolfe noted.

“[The turbines] could be in the water, which would damage them and take them out of commission and it would reduce the total flow capacity out of the dam for many weeks, if not the whole summer.”

DeWolfe said regulators can protect that equipment by closing part of the dam, but that means more water stays in Rainy Lake — but not enough to raise water levels significantly.

After testing earlier this week, the watershed board closed two of 15 gates on the Canadian side of the dam for a couple of hours. DeWolfe said that lowered water levels on the Rainy River by almost 10 cm.

So far, there is no threat to turbines on the Canadian side.

As of Thursday afternoon, levels on the Rainy River were lowering, due to increased outflow through other rivers further downstream, he noted. 

Plans to close part of the dam will be considered if more rainfall brings Rainy River water levels back up to levels dangerous to the turbines.

Nowhere for water to go in Couchiching

Meanwhile, officials in Couchiching First Nation are encouraging people to avoid pumping water from flooded homes unless it's absolutely necessary.

Band councillor and emergency resources co-ordinator Christine Jourdain said there's nowhere for water being pumped out to go.

“With the water level so high, it's sort of just a battle that you're just re-filling it back up after you've pumped it out again,” she said.

Community officials are pumping out water from a handful of people's septic fields, due to concerns they will flood, Jourdain added.

The First Nation is bracing for even more water, as Rainy Lake is expected to rise at least another 40 to 50 cm.


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