Anxiety on the shore

A translation by Judith Turcotte

We envy the people who choose to live on the shore of the St. Lawrence River but the choice comes with a certain degree of anxiety. The shoreline erosion of the St. Lawrence represents a serious problem for the residents but the phenomenon should not be a surprise; this erosion is normal and caused by natural factors, such has waves, tides and heavy rain. However, in recent decades, human activity such as maritime transport and the climate change have increased the erosion problem.

The federal government is the level of government responsible to see to the welfare of the river and its shores. The government claims to have the competence to face the problem via various ministries and governmental agencies. I don’t doubt that there are many specialists in the various ministries and governmental agencies. As in many cases, these specialists monitor the situation and write scholarly reports summarizing their observations and listing the possible consequences of what they have observed. They rarely enunciate solutions and the reason is easy to understand: there is no solution. In the past, retaining walls were built or large boulders placed on the shore were considered solutions but these are not considered acceptable today and more natural solutions are preferred by the population in general. These solutions are long-term and shoreline residents continue to see their lots reduce every year.

The problem experienced by the residents of Varennes, Verchères and Contrecoeur is a good example. In 1959, the St. Lawrence Seaway was inaugurated to permit passage of ships destined for the Great Lakes. The passage of these large ships amplified the shoreline erosion. Seventeen years later, in 1977, Ottawa announced that retaining walls would be built in Varennes, Verchères and Contrecoeur but nothing was done. In the 1990s, local members of parliament lobbied the government to get involved in solving the ever-present problem. In 1997, the federal program to fund shoreline protection was abolished, an obvious admission of failure. To make matters worse, the provincial government adopted a protection policy of shorelines, littoral zones and floodplains. A long list of wishful thinking that doesn’t help to solve the erosion problem. Since 1997, nothing has been done despite studies which confirm that the problem is ever-present and is only getting worse with the increase in number and size of the container carriers who frequent the port of Montréal.

The phenomenon of erosion doesn’t only affect shoreline residents. A bad habit of the past suddenly comes back to the surface. There exist old dump sites all along the St. Lawrence. Erosion allows an unavoidable escape of waste that floats towards some of the most beautiful sights of the river. Anticosti Island is a fine example where one of these dump sites is spreading garbage in the river and on the shoreline. According to an email received by the Devoir, a temporary cleaning work was completed in August 2019. This work allowed the collection of 1590 litres of broken glass, 500 litres of residual matter and four tons of metal. Why this work? The island is a candidate to become a UNESCO world heritage site. An answer is expected this year.

It’s far from over: different articles on climate change predict a rise in sea level due to, among other things, the melting of the ice cap. Should we then expect a rise in the level of the St. Lawrence River? The water levels in the estuary of the St. Lawrence will not doubt increase and amplify the damage caused by the shoreline erosion. However, it would seem that perhaps the contrary could occur upstream of the estuary. Our neighbours to the south need more and more water and are tempted by the water of the Great Lakes, the main source of our river. Water levels could decrease in that portion of the river. A case to be followed.

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