Frequently asked water management questions

Rideau Canal National Historic Site

Always remember:

Swimming within 40 metres above, below or near dams is strictly prohibited. Undertow currents in these areas are extremely dangerous!

Everyone enjoys a long dry summer but what many don't realize is that it's a double edge sword. Appreciate those rainy days when they come – the rainfall keeps lake levels up. The Rideau Canal watershed is highly dependent on Mother Nature to fuel the system....

What is water management?

Water management is the changing of water levels and water flows (volume/speed) by human actions throughout the Rideau Canal. This is done by:

  1. Collecting data;
  2. Analysing this data using models and tools that guide us in making decisions about changing water levels and flows;
  3. Adding or removing logs, or changing mechanized settings, in dams throughout the system.

Because these changes have an impact both upstream and downstream, as well as at the specific location where changes are made, water management must be approached on a total system basis.

Why is water managed?

Water is managed for several reasons including:

  • Public safety including mitigation of flooding;
  • Protection of:
    • environment, fisheries, wildlife habitats
    • water supplies
    • navigation
    • recreation
    • hydro generation

The complexities of these multiple and interconnected considerations dictate the need to monitor and manage water on a full time basis, continuously throughout the year.

Who manages water levels for all the lakes and rivers along the Rideau Canal?

Parks Canada Rideau Canal manages water levels on the Canal corridor and throughout the watershed with a few exceptions.
The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, local Conservation Authorities and hydro producers collaborate with Parks Canada.

Why do water levels and flows fluctuate?

Water levels and flows fluctuate for a number of reasons. Large amounts of rain, for instance, can cause lake levels to rise while extended periods of drought can have the reverse effect. Dam adjustments to re-balance water levels and flows may cause lakes to rise or drop while moving towards targets.

It is important to note that water levels are only one consideration and are intricately connected to flow rates. Certain flow rates are required at certain locations throughout the system to ensure water supplies and water quality are maintained. 

Sometimes water levels are lowered very early in the season. Why?

The lowering of water levels happens every year at the same time and is referred to as "drawdown". Water levels need to be lowered to make room for the precipitation that happens in the fall, winter and spring. In order to mitigate against flooding and optimize public safety throughout the interconnected system, lakes are lowered to make room for high inflows that are typical over the non-navigation seasons. Lakes in general are operated following a series of guidance curves.   

Lakes identified as cold water fisheries (Bobs Lake and Big Rideau Lake) have to be down by mid-October to protect the fish spawn.  If water levels are dropped after this time period there is a higher chance of having a negative impact on the spawn.

What is the drawdown?

Drawdown is when water levels are lowered on the Rideau.

It's a complex process that takes into consideration storage capacity of the lakes on the system, timing of fishery spawning, requirements for flood mitigation, typical fall and winter precipitation levels, downstream typography including constrictions like narrow river beds or dams, and overall volumes and flow rates.

Drawdown is guided by research, engineering and decades of experience.

Why are some lakes called reservoir lakes?

Some lakes were created by dams when the Canal was constructed, to be reservoirs to provide adequate storage of water to be released as required over the navigation season. There are two reservoir lakes (Bobs Lake and Wolfe Lake) and two reservoir/canal lakes (Upper Rideau Lake and Big Rideau Lake).

Why can't the drawdown of lakes be postponed?

There are many factors that guide the timing for drawdown and these will vary from lake to lake.

Public Safety and Flooding

Public safety and property can be severely and negatively impacted throughout the system if targeted levels and flows are not reached within a planned timeframe. For example, if larger bodies of water are not drawn down in time, and there happens to be a lot of fall, winter and spring precipitation, sudden melt, freshet ice, high winds or heavy rains there is a high risk that low lying areas and many cottage shorelines could be flooded. This situation would risk public safety and property damage.

Why is the water in my lake so low (or so high)?

Water levels in your lake may appear low or high for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • During a typical summer the water stored from spring is gradually released to meet varying demands across the watershed influenced, in large part, by weather.
  • On lakes with a broad surface and shallow depth, evaporative losses over summer months typically exceed rainfall gains and water levels can drop for this reason. Conversely, when rains are heavy or winds are strong, levels can rise.

In addition to these natural factors, water levels are altered by dam log changes, the size and number of logs, the number of spillways and the number of dams affecting a body of water – are water management tools used to keep the system at targeted levels.

Water management happens all year long. Dam controlled water level adjustments to your lake depend upon conditions across the entire waterway. Think of the management of water levels as a domino effect; water level adjustments in one body of water impact the next, and so on.

Where can I find out about the water levels for my lake and others?

You can find information about water levels by visiting the Water levels web site.

How often is the online water levels report updated?

The online Water levels report is typically updated daily, excluding weekends and holidays. 

What kind of technology does Parks Canada use to manage water levels?

Parks Canada has a system of water gauges, many of which are automated and produce data that tells us levels on various parts of the system. This is supplemented by many manual gauges, as well as data provided by Environment Canada on precipitation and weather patterns.

Historic data and seasonal patterns are also used as an important reference point. This data is then fed into a contemporary engineering water model and along with extensive waterway knowledge daily water changes are implemented accordingly.

What is a freshet?

The dictionary definition of freshet (a noun) is "a sudden overflow of a stream resulting from a heavy rain or a thaw." The term is used in reference to water levels rising due to melting snow and rainfall.

What is frazil ice?

Crystals of flowing ice that form together into a larger mass are referred to as frazil ice (also known as slush ice because of its appearance).

Two contributing factors behind frazil ice formation are cold temperatures and high river flow, particularly in turbulent areas, like dams. The accumulation of frazil ice in winter and early spring can create a natural dam effect inhibiting the flow of water.

Smiths Falls upstream of Detached Lock is the most susceptible to frazil ice buildup.  

What is a flow through lake?

The term "flow-through" is used to describe a body of water whose levels are dependent on water flowing from an upstream lake. When flows into the lake are high, levels rise; when flows into the lake are low, levels decline.

Christie Lake is an example of a flow through Lake.  

For more information about:

  • Water levels
  • Navigating the Rideau Canal
  • Reporting navigation hazards
  • Water level data for specific areas of the Rideau Canal
  • A dam near your property
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