by Alexandra Cousteau
"So this is the Appleton wetland," Mike O'Malley says to me as we kayak along the Drummond Creek, a side channel of the Mississippi River in Eastern Ontario on our River Mission expedition. Haggard maple trees have fallen or lay dead as far as the eye can see. I can tell that something is deeply wrong with this wetland. "What we're looking at are the dead and dying relics of the soft maple tree canopy that's been decimated by a very small rise in water levels of about 10 cm during their critical summer growing season," explains Mike, who heads up the local Mississippi RiverWatchers.
Mike, along with many others in his community of Almonte, Ontario believe that Enerdu Power System's dam is the culprit for the ecological destruction I see before us. In 2004 the company erected 40cm high flashboards on The Cascade of the Mississippi River to increase their power draw. That small rise in water levels downstream has drowned the upstream wetland, whose tree roots need to be dry during their summer growing season, explains Mike.
My expeditions always remind me that we all live connected to one another. Once we recognize this fact, and truly live by it, then watershed stewardship is no longer a choice but a necessity. In the case of the Appleton Wetland (a textbook example of the provincially significant hardwood maple wetland ecosystem) the dam is operating with little regard for the delicate ecological system upstream, and has thereby endangered what ecologists call the true lungs of the earth, a precious wetland.
Lucky for this dying forest wetland, people like Mike have mobilized to try and save it by trying to find a financially feasible operating model for the dam that also allows the wetland to thrive. "If we manage the water levels so that we have a healthy ecosystem and don't be greedy about how much power we get when, we could have a financially viable hydro operation downstream," he tells me. "We could have a healthy wetland that's accessible to both animals and humans for recreation. It could be very harmonious." Like so many situations where development seems to butt up against the needs of environment, there is a win-win solution to be found. The question is just whether all the people at the table are motivated to find it.
O'Malley first became the voice of his waterway in 2012, when a group of concerned citizens first joined together to become the Mississippi Riverwatchers, part of the Ontario Riverkeeper's River Watch program. Now, that voice has become a chorus of a dozen volunteers who advocate for a balanced approach to development (such as expansion plans for the dam that threatens the cascading waterfalls in the heart of Almonte) that ensures good stewardship of the river and its wetland.
Back on the water, Mike gestures to the landscape, which he has seen transformed from a lush and green canopy to a leafless skeleton of a forest in the span of nine years. As we glide along the river, the duck grass that floats at the surface of the water sounds like sand beneath my kayak. Mike's next words deeply resonate with me. I've heard them uttered over the years of water advocacy at Blue Legacy from the mouths of countless citizens and friends who have taken up the fight for their waterways; who give their rivers a voice; who ensure that governments are held accountable for environmental protection laws and that enforcement is upheld; who do what's right when those around them do not. Even in its denuded state, Mike sees a stretch of wilderness that is poised to take back what it has lost. And he's there to give it all the help he can muster: " This is accessible wilderness and it's worth fighting for."