Shaping Niagara Falls: Engineers, Hydropower, and Sustainability

Contemporary Aerial View of Niagara Falls (American Falls to the left, Horseshoe Falls to the right). Photo by author.

By Daniel Macfarlane

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the temporary turning off in 1969 of the American Falls, the smaller of the main cataracts at Niagara Falls. There was a precedent for this bold move: In the 1950s, engineers had re-plumbed the much larger Horseshoe Falls, shrinking it and diverting the majority of the water before it plunged over the precipice. All this may not seem very “green” — but the point was primarily to funnel water to hydropower stations. Thus, the modern history of Niagara Falls raises some interesting questions about what sustainability looks like in the Great Lakes basin.

Let’s jump back a bit. After decades of failed diplomatic agreements to remake Niagara Falls, in 1950 the United States and Canada finally inked the Niagara River Diversion Treaty. This accord authorized the binational construction, with International Joint Commission (IJC) oversight, of the International Niagara Control Works. These remedial works consisted of various weirs, dams, excavations, and fills, designed to facilitate greater hydro-electric production (and diminish the erosion that annually moved the Falls upstream 3-7 feet) by diverting the majority of the water destined for the Falls. Indeed, depending on the time of day and season, either half or three-quarters of the river flow is diverted around the waterfall via massive tunnels to hydropower stations.

GIS image showing past crestlines, and rate of recession (in years), at the Horseshoe Falls. Map created by Jason Glatz and Daniel Macfarlane.

Stealing most of the water from the waterfall would obviously harm its scenic appeal, as well as the local tourism economy. Thus, the engineers from both nations simultaneously sought ways to use the aforementioned remedial works, based on scale models, to “beautify” Niagara Falls by reshaping the curtain of water as it dropped over the brink so that it would at least give the “impression of volume” (and reduce the mist and spray that had led to many visitor complaints).  For example, the crestline of the Horseshoe Falls was chiseled out and shrunk by 355 feet; parts of these crest fills were fenced and landscaped to provide prime public vantage points (such as Terrapin Point).

Work on the Canadian flank of the Horseshoe Falls in the 1950s. Used with the permission of Ontario Power Generation.

With the Horseshoe Falls facelift accomplished, a campaign began in the mid-1960s to address the “unsightly” talus (the rock that gathered at the base of the American Falls). In 1967, Canada and the United States asked the IJC to investigate and report on measures necessary to preserve or enhance the beauty of the American Falls, specifically with regard to the talus. In 1969 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shut off the American Falls for about half a year (see the images, as well as this video). The outright removal of the 280,000 cubic yards of talus was considered, as was the placement of a dam downstream from the Falls that would drown the talus. But the engineers concluded that the talus was probably propping up the face of the waterfall. Based on this, as well as an estimated cost of approximately $26 million and uncertainly that the public would actually notice if the talus was gone, in the mid-1970s the IJC decided to keep the talus

The American Falls dewatered in 1969. Used with the permission of the Niagara Falls Public Library (NY).

Dewatered talus at the American Falls. Used with the permission of the Niagara Falls Public Library (NY).

The IJC admirably noted that it seemed “wrong to make the Falls static and unnatural, like an artificial waterfall in a garden or a park” and added that “man should not interfere with the natural process.” Of course, making the Falls “like an artificial waterfall” is precisely what technocrats had done in previous decades. Moreover, the dewatering provided an opportunity to stabilize the rock face of the American Falls with bolts and cables, and install electronic rockslide sensors. In the following years, other major engineering modifications were also performed on Luna Island and Terrapin Point.

Thus, even though additional major interventions were disavowed, representing a major conceptual shift, Niagara Falls had nonetheless already been heavily manipulated. This natural spectacle was, in many ways, decidedly unnatural.

I am personally conflicted about the history of Niagara Falls, specifically, and the role of engineered solutions and big technology in general. To my mind, claims that technology is the answer to our environmental problems seem to conveniently forget that technology is all too often the very cause of the problems. I can’t deny that the engineers have done a very impressive job with Niagara Falls. You could certainly argue that the end result was a compromise that provided a societal good – i.e., sufficient preservation of the scenic beauty coupled with electricity generation.

However, it feels unethical. Moreover, the engineering of famous landmarks like Niagara Falls gives license to messing with any natural system, feeding our technological hubris. Moreover, in recent years it has become apparent that hydroelectricity is not nearly as environmentally benign as has often been touted. In addition to the enormous impacts on the riverine ecosystems and the organisms that count on it for habitat, large reservoirs emit methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The American Falls in 2019. Photo by the author.

An energy system like that of Niagara Falls relies on expensive and elaborate infrastructure, along with the extreme manipulation of a waterfall and river – this system would quickly break down and cease to work without constant upkeep, maintenance, and intervention. Can that really be considered sustainable? I’m convinced that the only real long-term sustainable solution will be drastically reducing our society’s energy consumption. Renewable energy and sustainable energy are not necessarily the same thing.

Niagara’s history represents the traditional “hard path” approach to water: a focus on supply-side options, particularly enormous and capital-intensive infrastructure. But sustainable water policies and infrastructure will need to follow the “soft path,” which entails smaller and localized sources, as well as consideration of the water-energy nexus, and water policies and laws based on public trust, water as a commons, and right-to-water principles.

Daniel Macfarlane is an Associate Professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. His research and teaching focus on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, and he is the author or co-editor of several books, including authorship of a forthcoming book about the history of modifying Niagara Falls. He has written about Niagara Falls in numerous other academic publications, as well as in Slate, The Washington Post, and Toronto Star, which can be accessed here.

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