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The sun rises over Niagara Falls in Ontario on Nov. 4, 2020.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Daniel Macfarlane is an associate professor at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University.

Any poll of Canada’s greatest natural wonders puts Niagara Falls at, or near, the top of the list. Niagara is certainly a wonder, but natural? That is debatable. You might say Niagara Falls is just as much artificial – maybe even fake.

Picture yourself standing at the edge of Table Rock, leaning over the railing. You gape at the emerald-green water thundering over the Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the three waterfalls that make up this landmark. This close to the lip of the great cataract, it has an almost hypnotic pull. Through the spray buffeting your visage, you can make out a luminous rainbow arching over the abyss.

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But if you stood at this same spot in the year that, say, Canada became a country or the Second World War started, you would have found yourself going over the Horseshoe Falls.

In my book Fixing Niagara Falls, I detail how Canada and the United States – and Ontario and New York State – reconfigured the world’s most famous waterfall in the 20th century. The two countries diverted the majority of the water and, to disguise that, shrunk and reshaped the lip of the Horseshoe Falls. Since the 1950s, the majority of the Niagara River’s water has gone around, rather than over, the waterfall. Through tunnels that begin upriver, this white gold flows to the enormous hydropower stations several miles downstream.

The key date is 1950. That is the year Canada and the U.S. signed the Niagara Diversion Treaty, the culmination of decades of trying to come to a diplomatic agreement that would allow the two countries to take more of Niagara’s liquid endowment for power and industry while ostensibly maintaining its beauty.

This mid-century accord updated a range of previous cross-border engineering schemes. Both Ontario and New York State had built new hydropower stations in the first half of the 20th century, some of them the largest in the world. But bigger hydro stations needed more water. It just so happened that abstracting water would conveniently also reduce the natural erosion that moved the Horseshoe Falls upstream by as much as eight feet a year. Tourist and industrial interests alike preferred a waterfall with a fixed address.

Canadian and American engineers collaborated to figure out how to best wring the maximum amount of water, and thus power, from Niagara Falls. But how to do it without ruining the visual appeal and thus the local tourism industry? The proposed solution was a physical facelift. Rather than bare rock flanks at the edge, and deeper water in the middle, they could chisel out the brink of the waterfall so there would be a few feet of water across the entire crestline. That way, everyone could have their cake and eat it, too: water diverted for power, but a sufficient impression of volume in an unbroken curtain of water.

And while they were at it, the technocrats decided they could try to control not only the colour of the water as it fell but the amount of mist and spray the falls kicked up. After all, visitors frequently complained that they were getting wet – quelle surprise!

The 1950 treaty authorized greater water diversions and remedial works. The two countries were required to leave the flow of water over Niagara Falls at no less than 100,000 cubic feet per second during the daylight hours of the tourist season (spring to fall); at night, and at all times from late fall to early spring, the flow could be no less than 50,000 cubic feet per second.

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It helps to know that the average flow of Niagara Falls is a shade over 200,000. The new diversion regime meant Canada and the U.S. could take half of the river’s average flow during tourist hours and three-quarters the rest of the time.

Of course, a waterfall with the majority of its water flowing around it wasn’t going to look very aesthetically pleasing. So the treaty authorized a suite of engineering and infrastructural interventions to be supervised by the International Joint Commission. The two sides co-operatively shrunk the crestline of the Horseshoe Falls by 355 feet, excavating almost 90,000 cubic yards of the waterfall, while filling in or reclaiming other parts. The lip was carved out, as was the bed of the river. Steel cables and anchors essentially stapled parts of it together to combat erosion and rock falls.

Upstream, a gated control dam was built, extending halfway out across the river from the Canadian shore. This helped the tunnel intakes siphon off water and controlled how water flowed toward the waterfall, as well as how problematic ice formed in the winter. To plan all this, engineers relied on innovative scale models that even simulated the seasonal appearance of ice and aquatic weeds.

The point of all this was to make Niagara look more like itself – or at least a sanitized version of its past self. Planners expected that honeymooners would be none the wiser, unaware that they were gazing at a designer waterfall. (In 1969, the U.S. turned off the American Falls to examine removing the talus – the fallen rock at the base of the cataract – but decided to mostly leave the waterfall alone.)

I’m torn about this history. It is an impressive engineering and technological achievement. But after all this manipulation, should the Falls of Niagara still qualify as natural?

In academic speak, Niagara Falls was transformed into an “organic machine” – a hybrid or envirotechnical infrastructure that blends the artificial and the natural. Niagara still involves water plunging over limestone. Yet, by volume, the main fall of water occurs inside the penstocks of the generating stations near the Niagara Escarpment. These power stations have the capability to more or less turn off the waterfall by diverting all the water around it. When tourists gaze at the waterfall, they are, arguably, looking at the spillway of the hydroelectric complexes. And there are a number of negative environmental consequences from all this – the famed Niagara Whirlpool can even reverse when diversions are high.

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Moreover, there are increasingly doubts about how green or sustainable massive hydropower projects really are (on top of the displacement of people, especially Indigenous communities, for reservoirs). The most “sustainable” thing about Niagara Falls may be the longevity of the profits it generates. Turns out it’s less of a natural wonder and more a landscape of deception.

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