The Vulnerability of Niagara Falls

By mid-nineteenth century, the falls were cordoned off, reserved by hucksters for the paying few, and gristmills overwhelmed the natural beauty of the place. But then, in 1885, after a groundswell of public conservation sentiment, the New York State Reservation at Niagara Falls opened to the masses. Canada followed suit two years later, establishing Queen Victoria Park at Niagara Falls. Yet, despite the prudence of our forefathers, today the natural beauty of the place is threatened once again, this time by yet another hydroelectric diversion tunnel and rampant development at Niagara Falls.

Sir Adam Beck I and II generating stations

Sir Adam Beck I and II generating stations on the Niagara RiverCredit: Courtesy of Ontario Power Generation

In 2006 the world’s largest rock-boring machine began cutting another diversion tunnel under the City of Niagara Falls, Ontario. When that tunnel—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. 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 Canada is currently unable to siphon off all it is allowed under the 1950 Niagara Diversion Treaty, which set the minimum flow over the falls at about 50 percent of the natural flow of the river during the daylight hours of tourist season and 25 percent at all other times. Water in excess of the minimums was available for diversion. While the power companies continue to be bound by the treaty’s restrictions, it is worrisome that with the new tunnel, total diversion capacity, from 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 reducing the volume of water flowing over the brink, through a succession of progressively more lenient diversion treaties, underscores the falls’ vulnerability.

Credit: Library of Congress, ppmsca 09321

Credit: Library of Congress, ppmsca 09321

Adding insult to injury, the setting of the falls is set to take a plunge. With the arrival of the casinos came myriad new high-rise hotels, most within a stone’s throw of the falls. The result—an expanse of concrete and glass extending downriver from the Horseshoe Falls. That wall is slated to infiltrate the seven acres of green space surrounding Loretto Academy, the stately, 148-year-old convent school that sits atop the bluff at the brink of the Horseshoe Falls, and from where Bess, in The Day the Falls Stood Still, glimpses prayers drifting heavenward in the mist above the falls. In 2006 a hotelier bought Loretto, and the City of Niagara Falls has amended its Official Plan to add the Loretto property to the area deemed suitable for high-rises, a first step toward allowing the treed grounds of Loretto that today frame the falls to be replaced by three towering buildings. The falls will be dwarfed by the tallest, a monstrous fifty-seven stories—more than three times the height of the falls. And it isn’t just the view that will be spoiled. The high-rises will cast shadows on the falls and the surrounding parkland and could increase the number of rain-like days at Niagara Falls by altering the airflow near the falls and drawing the mist toward the land, an effect that has already been demonstrated to be the case for the high-rise hotels that came with the casinos.

The idea of high-rises forming the backdrop to a natural wonder of the world does not sit well with me. As a child, and later as an adult, I have stood at the brink of the falls countless times, filling with wonder, filling with awe. The sanctity of the place, I feel, must be preserved.

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 a looming wall of concrete and glass.

One Response to “The Vulnerability of Niagara Falls”

  1. Donald Rodges

    I went back to Niagara Falls for the first time in twelve years last Christmas. I was shocked at not only the development along the top of the gorge (Niagar Falls now has a skyline!) but I was very dissapointed when I went and visited Table Rock House. Outside was a huge fake rock structure advertising the new attraction at Table Rock House. It was my understanding while working in the park all of those years in the 70’s and 80’s that all structures within the park had to fit in with the natural aspects of the park and that in my opinion certainly did not. I am also being told the building of the casino’s and hotels has created a micro-climate in the park, keeping it cooler than it was prior to the building. It is difficult to stop such development and after the Seagram and Skylon towers were built, along with the Oneida, it becomes harder to say no. I was also shocked to learn that you can picnic at Dufferin Islands (I recall with fondness the nature trails wondering them for hours during the summer months) but you dare not swim in the water. The Niagara Falls of my youth has given way to the new Niagara Falls. To see Loretto Academy become the site of a high rise breaks my heart.