Transport Canada, water levels: Chi-Cheemaun’s perfect storm

This docking pier at South Baymouth awaits Transport Canada improvements to mitigate low water so the Chi-Cheemaun can dock.

What a week!

It’s a significant irony that just as the International Joint Commission (IJC) announced it was recommending man-made intervention in the St. Clair River in order to slow down the outflow from Lake Huron/Georgian Bay in an effort to begin to reduce the drastic drop in lake levels that has happened over the past few years, the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC) determined that it could not safely begin its schedule on time this year because of issues related to low water levels.

For the sake of the Chi-Cheemaun’s sailing season, it’s unfortunate that the IJC, or the governments of Canada and the United States, had not dealt with the issue some years ago and started the process of plugging Lake Huron’s leak at the St. Clair River then.

While looking backwards in this way to an endless array of “what ifs?” is usually not a productive activity, in this particular case it’s impossible not to do so because of the cause and effect relationship that the Chi-Cheemaun’s travails so aptly demonstrates.

Nevertheless, the IJC’s recommendation has been made and, according to a source cited in an Expositor news story this week, it has found favour with at least three high-ranking federal cabinet ministers, one of whom (Tony Clement) represents the riding that includes the Georgian Bay port of Parry Sound.

That’s a fairly good indication that Canada will cooperate on fixing the leak, hopefully with the U.S. government also quickly buying into stemming the outflow of Lake Huron, Georgian Bay and Lake Michigan water.

So now, what about the collateral damage, so prominently demonstrated by the Chi-Cheemaun’s woes, of a dramatically lowered lake?

Putting the Chi-Cheemaun on her normal spring sailing schedule is the logical and practical, in addition to symbolic, step the government of Canada must take.

While the Conservative member of parliament from Owen Sound-Grey-Bruce cites incompetence on the part of a federal civil servant as a major cause in the lack of required renovations to the federally-owned ferry docks at South Baymouth and Tobermory (which, when completed, would allow the Chi-Cheemaun to dock safely, compensating for the low water depth at these two vital ports) the important thing is to get the work done.

Even a temporary job that could see the Chi-Cheemaun able to dock as usual and so lose no more than a week of her sailing season is the absolute minimum requirement just now.

The federal government has now recognized the need for action with regard to the Lake Huron/Georgian Bay water level.

The same government, the owners of the ferry docks at South Baymouth and Tobermory, must surely see the clear connection between the two issues and promptly address it.

On Monday of this week, this paper received a carefully worded “statement” from Transport Canada regarding the ferry dock concerns in answer to a question to the effect of “what are you going to do about it and when?” posed by an Expositor reporter.

The answer, “Transport Canada is in discussions with the Government of Ontario and the Owen Sound Transportation Company to explore options to address the impacts of low water levels on the docking of the Chi-Cheemaun ferry” is beyond inadequate. It’s an insult to our region and to the importance of the Chi-Cheemaun as an economic booster.

Three high ranking Conservative cabinet ministers (Tony Clement, Peter Kent and John Baird) have publicly recognized that something needs to be done to stem Lake Huron’s/Georgian Bay’s increasing outflow.

There are not too many dots to connect to get from this important recognition to the fact that the only passenger and vehicle ferry in Canada’s upper Great Lakes region is unable to sail because of water level issues that are now sufficiently recognized to merit official action and that it is the sole responsibility of Transport Canada, a federal agency, to ensure that the Chi-Cheemaun can dock at her two Georgian Bay ports.

The Chi-Cheemaun cannot afford to be collateral damage for any more than the one week that she will not sail as the OSTC management determined on Monday of this week that the situation will be reviewed next Monday, May 10 and a decision will be made at that time whether she will remain at her Owen Sound dock for yet another week or if her sailing season is to begin.

The ball is in Transport Canada’s court and there is no question that the docks at South Baymouth and Tobermory can be remediated quickly, so long as the political will is there.

The will must be there. The Chi-Cheemaun must not lose more than this first week of her season.