As flooding continues, some parts of Quebec seeing water levels drop

While some residents in Quebec are fleeing their homes to escape flooding, others living along the Gatineau River are questioning the lower than normal water levels.

'We're literally high and dry a few kilometres from where people are deep under water'

John Hunsley surveys the shoreline at his property in Cantley, Que., normally under metres of water. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

As some residents in Quebec flee their homes to escape flooding, others living along the Gatineau River are questioning the lower than normal water levels in their communities.

"Why are we seven or eight feet below the normal levels?" asks John Hunsley. "And why is it just downstream of us ... flooding?"

Hunsley and his wife Catherine Lee said they've never seen the river so low in the seven years they've lived along it in Cantley, Que.

Normal water levels in front of John Hunsley and Catherine Lee's Cantley, Que. home (left) and a recent photo of the exposed shoreline due to lower than normal water levels (right). (John Hunsley/Idil Mussa CBC News)

"Normally, we would have our dock in the water and we would go kayaking. Now, the dock is completely out of the water," said Lee.

"The water level is many, many feet below what it would normally be and all we can see is a new beach."

Hunsley said he initially thought things would quickly return to normal but that hasn't been the case.

"This has gone on, probably almost two weeks,' he said.

Terrain around Chelsea differs

Mathieu Rouy, with Hydro Quebec, said the terrain around Chelsea — which is across the river from Cantley — is quite different from other areas of Quebec experiencing flooding at the moment.

"It's just the natural level of the river right now," he said. "The gates of the Chelsea generating station are open, so we're just letting the water through."

There are several run-of-the-river power generation stations along the Gatineau River, including Chelsea and Rapides-Farmer.

John Hunsley says he and wife Catherine Lee normally launch their kayaks off their dock, which is now sitting on the bottom of the riverbed. (John Hunsley/Idil Mussa CBC News)

Rouy said while the opening and closing of their gates can help control the movement of water, the generation stations are not reservoirs designed to hold water for long periods of time.

The gates are sometimes closed during the summer when levels are low so water can be contained upstream to generate power. But during the spring flooding period, they are kept open to safely manage water levels downstream and upstream, said Rouy.

'Manage the flooding in other areas'

According to the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board — established by the federal, Quebec and Ontario governments to manage the reservoirs of the Ottawa River drainage basin — the upstream water level at a generating station can have a backwater effect kilometres upstream.

"In Chelsea, if we [had] the water level higher than it is right now, it could affect flooding as far as 50 kilometres upstream," said Rouy.

"The reason that the river is so low is really to try and manage the flooding in other areas," agreed Chelsea Mayor Caryl Green.

Green said the Mercier Dam in Montcerf-Lytton, Que., was emptied prior to spring flooding so water could accumulate there and minimize flooding downstream. 

"They're holding back the water in that reservoir ... they're trying to have it come through at a controlled amount so as not to flood the villages," she said.

"Yes, the river is low in the Chelsea area, but it's in order to manage and avoid the extreme flooding and evacuation of people from their homes."

More communication needed, mayor says

Green said Hydro Quebec owns sections of the shoreline along the Gatineau River.

While she believes the company and the Ministry of Public Safety are doing their best to minimize damage to homes along the river, a better job could have been done in updating her office and residents, she said.

"I have heard from people who are upset that there isn't more communication coming out from Hydro Quebec," she said.

"When we've talked to neighbours," added Hunsley, "everyone's as confused as we are."