Long Lac and Ogoki (excerpt)
IT’S A HOT JULY DAY in the lake country of northwestern Ontario when the DeHavilland Beaver floatplane lifts off from a lake 150 miles north of Thunder Bay. The small craft jostles and jags in a stiff wind as it rises above the rugged and remote country that blankets the watershed north of Lake Superior. As the plane climbs into the midafternoon sun, the full extent of the region’s expansive boreal forest becomes clear. There are trees as far as the eye can see, and lakes dimple the landscape, sprinkled like so many watery sequins on the woodlands below. As the miles pass by, the serpentine logging roads, blotchy clear-cuts, and other signs of civilization slowly fade away until there’s nothing left but pure, unadulterated Canadian wilderness.
Suddenly, after about thirty minutes of flight, an incongruent scene emerges from the forest below. In the middle of nowhere rests a dam. It’s not a particularly large or noteworthy structure. Many dams are bigger. What is unusual is where it’s located—in a roadless area. This is Ontario’s Summit Dam, so named because it sits on the tip of the divide that separates the Lake Superior and Hudson Bay watersheds. And as strange as it looks out here in the wilderness, Summit Dam is not alone. Just a few minutes’ flight to the north sits the Waboose Dam, and it is a noteworthy structure. Spanning 1,700 feet—or more than five football fields—it’s much larger than the Summit Dam and is more than 450 feet longer than the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.1 The Waboose Dam is so large, yet so remote, that it strikes a surreal pose in the northwestern Ontario wilderness.
Why are these dams here? They are the primary hydrologic structures behind the giant Ogoki diversion, by far the largest inter- Basin water transfer project ever built in the Great Lakes region (fig. 6.1).2 The Waboose Dam serves as the diversion’s backstop, cutting through the upper reaches of the Ogoki River and blocking off water that would otherwise wind its way to Hudson Bay. Stretching from one bank of the Ogoki to the other, the Waboose Dam steals water from the upper reaches of the river, backing it up into a sprawling man-made reservoir that feeds toward Summit Dam. If Waboose is the plug that creates this giant diversion, Summit is the outlet—and the tap is almost always open—pouring billions of gallons of reversed Ogoki River water daily toward Lake Nipigon and ultimately into Lake Superior.
With an average estimated flow of about 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), the Ogoki diversion is 25 percent larger than the highly contentious Illinois diversion (at 3,200 cfs). But unlike the Illinois diversion, Ogoki is practically devoid of controversy— boring by comparison. Most people don’t even know it exists. Its remoteness lends to its obscurity, and so does its age—it was completed in 1943. But the Illinois diversion is four decades older, and it still makes headlines. What is it then that makes the Ogoki diversion so noncontroversial...