Image via Wikipedia
With rampant development and a new hydroelectric tunnel to siphon water away from the river, Niagara Falls is threatened in ways that are eerily familiar. Way back, the falls were cordoned off, reserved by hucksters for the paying few, and gristmills overwhelmed the natural beauty of the place. But then in the 1880s, a groundswell of preservation sentiment led to the establishment of public parks on both the American and Canadian sides of the river. Here’s to hoping the old adage about history repeating itself is true, because today we are again failing miserably at preserving the natural wonder of the world entrusted to our care.
An unsightly wall of hotels extends downriver from the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side of the river, and that wall is slated to infiltrate the seven acres of green space that today frame the Horseshoe Falls in nature when viewed from the American side of the river. In 2006, a Canadian hotelier bought Loretto Academy, the stately, 148-year-old convent school that stands atop the bluff at the Horseshoe Falls, and now the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario, has amended its official plan, permitting the hotelier to replace the treed grounds of the academy with three high-rises, one a monstrous 57 stories in height.
And it isn’t just the view that’s being spoiled. According to the Niagara Parks Commission, the government agency that owns and maintains the tract of Canadian parkland running the length of the river, the misty days have more than doubled since the high-rises went up, and engineering consultants Rowan Williams Davies & Irwin, who modeled the area, say the high-rises are altering the airflow near the falls, drawing vapor toward the land and creating more days with rain-like conditions. Awnings and umbrellas have gone up and raincoats are now donned at plenty of spots where it was once possible to remain dry while taking in the staggering beauty of the falls.
The shadows of the new high-rises will cast parts of Queen Victoria Park beside the falls in gloom as the sun moves from the southern sky to the west and will span the river as the sun sets, bringing darkness to Goat Island’s Terrapin Point, the favored American vantage point for viewing the falls, 90 minutes early at certain times of the year. Worse yet, for a six-week period each spring and each fall, the shadows will interfere with the spectacle of the setting sun’s light on the Horseshoe Falls. Needless to say, when the sunshine is blocked, Niagara’s trademark rainbow will not appear.
Adding insult to injury, the magnificence of the falls themselves are set to take a plunge. In 2006 the world’s largest rock-boring machine began cutting yet another diversion tunnel under the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario. When that tunnel — it’s six stories in height — is completed in 2013, Ontario’s capacity to divert water away from the river and falls for the production of hydroelectricity will increase by 30 percent.
The water available for diversion is legislated by the 1950 Niagara Diversion Treaty, which set the minimum flow over the falls at about 50 percent of the natural flow during the daylight hours of tourist season and 25 percent at all other times, and in the words of Ontario Power Generation, “Excess water above and beyond what is required for tourism is now ‘spilling’ over the falls some of the time.” Offensive as the statement is, it is true that during the “non-tourist flow” times, Canada is currently unable to siphon off all it is allowed. Worrisome, though, is that with the new tunnel, total diversion capacity, including both the Canadian and the American power installations, will reach a whopping 186,000 cubic feet per second, enough to divert 93 percent of the river’s average natural flow. Our history of relentlessly chiseling away at the volume of water flowing over the brink through a succession of progressively more lenient diversion treaties underscores the vulnerability.
When the New York State Reservation at Niagara Falls opened in 1885, it was with a declaration that Niagara Falls was “not property, but a shrine — a temple erected by the hand of the Almighty for all the children of men.” Yet we find ourselves on a path of turning Niagara Falls into a trifling, measly thing, framed not by nature but by looming, glass and concrete edifices erected for the financial gain of a few.
Cathy Marie Buchanan is the author of the novel “The Day the Falls Stood Still,” which opens at Loretto in 1915 and chronicles the early days of hydroelectric development on the Niagara River. She is a founding member of the conservation organization www.FriendsOfNiagaraFalls.org.