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As Gatineau River rises, Ottawa River enjoys 'a very average' spring

Friday, May 27th 2022, 5:11 am - Thick snow, late melt, intense precipitation north of Gatineau to blame, experts say

For the third time in six years, people living along the Gatineau River are bracing for a deluge as they have been warned to expect the river to overflow its banks as soon as Saturday.

The city is again distributing sandbags so residents in Gatineau, Que., can shore up their properties. Once again, firefighters are warning them to have an evacuation plan ready, just in case.

"The water's coming. That's all they can do," said rue Adélard resident Suzanne Quesnel, who's been through all this before.

gatineau-sandbagging The area under the flood warning suffered significant flooding damage back in 2017, and again in 2019. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

According to Hydro-Québec's Francis Labbé, the blame lies with this winter's unusually thick and late-melting snowpack, combined with recent precipitation over the enormous Baskatong Reservoir, 220 kilometres north of the city.

"All that snow melted and filled up the reservoir," Labbe said. "Everything was under control until early last week."

That's when the region was drenched with as much spring rain in a week as it typically sees in a month. Additionally, Hydro-Québec can only control about 40 per cent of the water flowing into the Gatineau River. The rest of the spring freshet empties into the waterway unchecked.

"That's a lot of water to manage, unfortunately," Labbé said. "We can only do so much."

As a result, Hydro-Québec is predicting water levels on the Gatineau River could rise by 10 to 20 centimetres, and by 20 to 40 centimetres in the Maniwaki, Que., area.

ottawa-river-basin The Ottawa River Basin includes numerous tributaries, including the Gatineau River. The Baskatong Reservoir is the large body of water about 220 kilimetres directly north of the capital. (Ottawa Riverkeeper)

'A VERY AVERAGE YEAR' ON THE OTTAWA RIVER

For people living along the Ottawa River, it's a different story.

"It could be described as a very average year," said Michael Sarich, a water resources engineer with the Ottawa River Regulation Secretariat, the agency that manages the flow throughout the Ottawa River basin.

"In terms of the river itself, it's at very normal levels, decreasing toward summer levels."

In a typical year, water levels would be more consistent throughout the Ottawa River Basin, which includes the Gatineau River. But this is no typical year.

"It's just the vagaries of the distribution of precipitation and snow," Sarich said. "These are very unusual conditions where you have high flow on the Gatineau and low flow on the Ottawa River."

michael-sarich Michael Sarich of the Ottawa River Regulation Secretariat says conditions are different on the two rivers this spring, and so is the threat of flooding. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

The secretariat isn't predicting flooding along the Ottawa River this year, and says relatively low flow could also ease the burden on neighbourhoods near the confluence of the two rivers, such as Pointe Gatineau, which has been prone to severe flooding in recent years.

Sarich said 2003 was the last time there was such a discrepancy between water levels in the two rivers.

"Looking at those comparison years and our other modelling, there's no indication of flooding on the Ottawa or in the lower Gatineau itself," Sarich said.

Labbé said Hydro-Québec is also hoping the good news on the Ottawa River will bode well for people living along the lower Gatineau River.

"We think that with the fact that the Ottawa River is more quiet this year, it might not be as scary as it has been in 2019 and 2017 in Gatineau," he said.

This article, written by Alistair Steele, was originally published for CBC News.

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