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Why Do We Have an Ice Boom?

With the complete arrival of winter in Buffalo, I decided to revisit a conversation we have had at Great Lakes United several months ago. One of the prominent features of the Buffalo winter scene is the Niagara River Ice Boom.  The installation and removal of the Ice Boom marks a regular celebration of the changing seasons in this magnificent part of the Great Lakes ecosystem. And we were pleased to hear of the announcement earlier in the fall that the storage of the ice boom will be moved this upcoming year to free up prime waterfront space that could lead to increased public access and native ecosystem restoration.

Our questions surrounding the Ice Boom were different- we wanted to know more about the existence of the Ice Boom in general. Originally designed to keep the Niagara River and its associated hydroelectric facilities free of large chunks of ice, we began to explore whether the ice boom may also be preventing ice in the river from performing its natural maintenance routine. Is the Ice Boom a good or bad thing (or both) for the Niagara River, Buffalo, and Western New York ecologically?
This is the question that people have asked about the steel pontoon structure that has kept the Niagara River mainly free of large chunks of ice since its installation in the mid 1960’s. Owned by the New York State Power Authority and controlled by the International Joint Commission, the ice boom is said to help allow millions of dollars of hydroelectric power production every year. But critics have begun to question the design of the boom. Local resident Joseph Barrett received media attention this past spring in the Niagara Gazette and this summer in the Buffalo News by drawing an analogy between the ice and the river and fiber and our digestive system. Floating ice, Barrett claims, could provide important functions for the lake in a way that fiber does for our bodies. For Barrett, the retention of ice at the edge of Lake Erie may lead to an overabundance of sediment and organic material deposition, which ice would have otherwise scoured out and deposited downstream. Barrett feels this could lead to ecological problems. The only problem with Barrett’s ideas is that they are untested theories. The only way to confirm or deny these claims would be to do the research. The International Joint Commission, created as a binational institution 100 years ago, was designed to investigate just such issues.

Advocates of the ice boom will point to the year round ability to produce hydroelectric power and protection of shoreline property as benefits of the boom. It These benefits are very important.  An ice boom, however, is not the only design for ice retention. On the St Marys River, a Great Lakes connecting river that links Lake Superior and Lake Huron, experiments have been done with artificial islands and ice retention. Artificial islands have also been used been used at various points along the St Lawrence River to protect hydraulic structures from moving ice.
While it is certain that conditions vary greatly between various connecting rivers, the ecological questions surrounding the ice boom may warrant further investigation. The IJC reviews its approval of the ice boom every five years and manages the boom with its International Niagara Board of Control. The Board of Control is required to hold an annual public meeting. Be sure to check their website for updates, past reports, and contact information for the board members (none of which have offices in New York State). While the ice boom has become a wonderful part of our culture, complete with its own festival, it is important to take advantage of opportunities to reevaluate the status quo and determine if there are improvements that could be made to operation of the Ice Boom.  Let’s celebrate the seasons, Boom Days, and continue working for cleaner and healthier Lakes and rivers!

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