Icebreakers labour to free ice plugging St. Clair River

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Ice jammed in the St. Clair River near Port Lambton has caused some flooding for shoreline residents.

“It has been awful,” said Steve Arnold, mayor of St. Clair Township,

That township borders the river where icebreakers from Canada and the U.S. have been working for several days to free an “ice plug” that, combined with north winds, caused flooding along the shoreline.

“We first started seeing it in Port Lambton and then Leeland Gardens early last week,” Arnold said of the flooding.

The water level was back down “about a foot” by the morning of Feb. 6, he said.

“It retreated back into its banks mostly. There are still a couple of the really low-lying areas we’ve had a problem with.”

During the flooding, several feet of water made its way into some houses, Arnold said.

He estimated the number of homes impacted by flooding in the “10s of 10s, not hundreds.”

Michael Brown, an icebreaking operations officer with the Canadian Coast Guard, said CCGS Samuel Risley and CCGS Giffon are working on the ice plug near where the river becomes a delta and ice can jam up.

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Working with the two Canadian icebreakers are three smaller bay class ships with the U.S. Coast Guard. CCGS Samuel Risley has been assigned as the on-scene c-oordinator, Brown said.

As well as addressing flooding concerns, the coast guards have been escorting one or two commercial vessels a day through the ice, Brown said.

The ice plug is largely impacted by wind and, last week, a strong north wind pushed water into lower Lake Huron, he said.

There wasn’t a large amount of ice in the lake at the time, “but when it gets blown down the river, combined with that north wind, that’s what causes the problems,” he said.

The north winds only lasted about 48 hours and then subsided, giving the coast guards in Canada and the U.S. time to begin working to free the ice plug in the river, he said.

“The cold temperatures aren’t helping the situation,” Brown said. “It’s just making ice all over the place, and it’s making that jam more solid all the time.”

The concern is that water levels could rise again with a north wind, which is forecast for later in the week, Brown said.

“We’re working hard to get that ice moving down through there,” he said.

The St. Clair Region Conservation Authority extended its flood watch in the region through to Feb. 11.

Emily De Cloet, water resources specialist with the authority, said winds have subsided and water levels fallen in recent days, but noted forecasts indicate the potential for flooding to return later in the week.

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“It looks like this ice jam is going to be more of a long-haul situation,” De Cloet said on Feb. 8. “As of right now, water levels are stable” with “no severe flooding concerns.”

The U.S. National Weather Service issued a flood warning for Southeastern St. Clair County in Michigan. It said the worst flooding on the Michigan side of the river was along Marine City and north to the City of St. Clair.

Arnold said the U.S. shore in that area of the river is lower than the Canadian side.

“They are far more impacted than us,” he said. “They have a foot and half of water on the streets, and that sort of thing. We’ll get water on the streets but five to eight inches, at the most, is what we’ve seen this year.”

Arnold said township staffs are working hard through the situation and residents have been patient.

“They know where they live,” he said. “It’s a horrible thing with these higher water levels on the Great Lakes. It’s just compounded when you get that ice jam.”

The need for ice breaking in that part of the river happens most winters, “but it’s a different type of ice this year,” Arnold said. He said the ice appears to be thinner this year.

“But I think it’s just the sheer volume,” he said. “The temperature dropped so fast and things let go and then it just started packing in.”

Flooding along the shoreline can cause other challenges for the township and homeowners.

St. Clair Township pumps its sanitary sewers, particularly in the southern end of the municipality where the Port Lambton area is located, but that becomes more of a chore when flood water makes its way into the sanitary system and raises the threat of sewage backing up.

“We were keeping a head all week, but just barely,” Arnold said. “We’re running pumps full time.”

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