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Meet Peter Kowalski, the guy who controls mighty Niagara Falls

Peter Kowalski is the gatekeeper of Niagara Falls.

He sits in a tower of power on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, and regulates the water flowing over the falls – Canadian and American.

Kowalski’s main tool is a wall of 18 gates that open and close, regulating the flow of water used for hydroelectricity.

Kowalski studied electrical technology at Niagara College in Welland, Ont., and has worked for Ontario Power Generation for 25 years. Eighteen of those years were spent in the Niagara River Control Center, where a legion of closed-circuit cameras and computer monitors guide decisions on ice management, scenic flow and hydropower production.

Kowalski, 56, said the control center really serves as a water broker.

“You won’t find another facility or operation like this,” he said.

The control center, just past Marineland, is regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environment Canada, which in turn report to the International Joint Commission.

People Talk: How do you control the mighty Niagara?

Peter Kowalski: We don’t hold back the flow completely. There are 18 gates, 100 feet long and 10 feet high. They are made of steel and sit between concrete piers. They’re movable. We control those gates to the nearest half-foot. We control the water to minimum levels as specified in the Niagara Treaty that was signed in 1950 between the U.S. and Canada.

PT: How do you know when to increase the flow?

PK: There are requirements in the treaty in terms of what the minimal levels and flows are. It’s an agreed-to amount between two countries. For example, during the tourist hours from April 1 to Oct. 31, it’s 100,000 cubic feet per second from 8 in the morning to 10 at night. That’s minimum.

PT: Does it bother you that we are tampering with nature?

PK: We’re not really tampering. We get the natural flow of water in, and we’re taking water out and returning it to the river downstream below Niagara Falls. If anything, we are helping to conserve the crest of the falls through compliance with the treaty.

PT: Is this your dream job?

PK: It’s a good job. I have excellent people working with me, and I have two bosses – from Ontario Power Generation and New York Power Authority.

PT: How is the amount of water used for electricity determined?

PK: In New York State, operators at the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston receive reports every hour, three hours in advance of the current time telling them how much water they can take for electricity. The same thing is done for Ontario Power Generation’s control center in Toronto. We also forecast water flows up to 10 days in advance using several hydrodynamic models. The power markets use the information to help in their planning – if they want to plan a generator outage for maintenance.

PT: What breaks around here?

PK: The gates. I mean you’re talking about infrastructure that’s 70 years old. One bridge spans each gate. As part of the bridge project, we strengthened it back to Canadian Highway Traffic Standards. The reason we started the bridge remediation is that our load rating went from to 90 tons to five. We could only take a pickup truck across the bridge.

PT: Have waters been dangerously low?

PK: The power companies reduce operations in low-flow conditions based on our reports to them. We monitor the flow out of Lake Erie. Winds from the southwest push more water over the Waverly Shoal and into the river. Every hour, three hours ahead we’re looking.

PT: What is your role in stopping the flow of water over the American Falls?

PK: My recommendation is to do the work – the pedestrian bridge from the mainland to Goat Island needs repair – as quickly as possible and in the shortest time frame possible. Over the course of one year – spring, summer, fall – is the best way to do that work. Ice management is out biggest concern.

PT: What about ice management?

PK: This year, it’s pretty much done. By Monday there won’t be any snow, and that’s pretty much it for this year.