Transition Initiative Kenora
Transition Initiative Kenora (TIK) is a community-led response to climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy. We're building a more resilient community and improving the quality of life for everyone in Kenora and the Treaty 3 area.


Get the latest news and updates from TIK staff & members.

Winnipeg River Drift Card Study

This summer, in collaboration with Environmental Defence, Ecology Ottawa and the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and community partners, Transition Initiative Kenora is undertaking a study into the potential consequences of a spill from the Energy East pipeline into the Winnipeg River.  


 The Energy East pipeline would cross the Winnipeg River between this narrows.  Photo taken from north side of Tunnel Island, December 2015.

The Energy East pipeline would cross the Winnipeg River between this narrows.  Photo taken from north side of Tunnel Island, December 2015.

The Concept

The project is a drift card study, modeled on one done by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation in British Columbia over the past few years.  For that project, over a period of years, RCF dropped thousands of plywood drift cards from a number of locations where the Kinder Morgan pipeline and tanker route affects the Fraser River and Salish Sea.  Each card was tagged with a unique identifying number and information on how to report where the card was found.  Members of the public who discovered the cards floating or washed ashore reported the cards (via a phone number or website URL), and over time a map emerged that showed how far cards dispersed from the original “spill” location, and how fast they moved.  

The idea here in Kenora, of course, is to gain some insight into how contaminants could move within our local river system.  

The Energy East pipeline is slated to carry 1.1 million barrels (=174.9 million L / day) of crude oil per day across the Winnipeg River.  Should there ever be a leak, rupture or spill of any kind, either at the river crossing or anywhere near it, we know that diluted bitumen has the ability to really foul up the system.  Some studies have shown that the product can separate into its component fractions, with the heavy, tarry bitumen sinking to the bottom and coating the riverbed, while the lighter diluent fraction will partially evaporate on site, creating toxic air pollution.  

However, some oil is likely to also remain in suspension in the water column, especially under windy conditions that churn up the river bottom sediment.  This mid-water column contamination has the potential to flow for many miles downstream; in the infamous Kalamazoo River spill of 2010  researchers were astonished to find that diluted bitumen contamination as far as 60 km downstream, and that its further progress was stopped by hydroelectric dams that worked as crude containment structures.  More recently, the Husky Oil pipeline spill near North Battleford, SK last year saw 225,000 L heavy crude oil (not dilbit, but a similar type of heavy crude oil) spill into the North Saskatchewan River system and travel more than 300 km, contaminating community drinking water sources for multiple cities and towns along the way.  

We want to know more about how our own local river systems function.  How far might contaminants travel, and how fast?  While wooden drift cards obviously aren’t a perfect model for spilled oil, they will give us a good sense of flow rates and directions, and will also help us to identify areas where contaminants might be expected to pool along the riverbank.  


Details of the Drift Card Drop

UPDATE: The day before the drop, we were contacted by officials with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry's Kenora District office who informed us that proceeding with the drop in the absence of an authorization permit would result in charges against Transition Initiative Kenora under the Public Lands Act.  While we work through the details of resolving this impasse, the date of the drop has been postponed.

Once we have permits in hand, we will venture onto the Winnipeg River near the pipeline crossing and we will drop 200 numbered pink “cards” (pieces of 1”x4” spruce lumber, painted bright pink so they show up, stamped and sealed with low-VOC, water-based sealant). 

Then, over the summer, as people on the Winnipeg River system find these cards, they can report them to the phone number (1-844-330-7447) or the website (  By September, we anticipate that most of the cards will have been recovered and we will begin analyzing data to generate a map that shows distance and dispersion rate.



How You Can Get Involved

Do you have a boat and would like to help us on the day of the drop?  

We could use 1 or 2 volunteer captains to venture out to the drop site on the River with us.  The drop will take only a few minutes, plus time for media questions.  We are aiming to do the drop in early July (date TBD based on when / if we can get permits).  If you can help with this task or you'd like a seat in a boat, please contact us!

Since we are planning to drop the cards from boats in the river, it might be tricky to participate in the drop from shore.  However, with a pair of binoculars and an appetite for a hike, people are welcome to view from shore.  The best vantage point will probably be from the north side of Tunnel Island, accessible on foot by hiking the long loop trail around the island.  

This is a rugged, all-terrain trail that is not very accessible to those with limited mobility, but it is a beautiful little hiking trail that is highly recommended if you've never visited it.  At a brisk pace, allow half an hour to get to the north side of the island, or more time if you're moving at a more leisurely pace.  Park at the lot near Lakeview Drive (across the road and in between Birchwood Terrace and the Headwaters) and follow the signs posted at the trail head.  

Track the cards

Over the days and weeks following the drift card drop, if you’re out on the river, take a look for the bright pink cards.  When you find one, retrieve it and keep it (don't throw it back in the river - - although the cards are just wood and will biodegrade over time, we are aiming to recover as many of them as possible).

 Better yet, organize a group of friends to join you and go out for an exploration of the river.  Stop for a picnic, enjoy the sights, and consider how precious and beautiful this place is.  Imagine how much would be lost if an oil spill ever happened.  

Thanks for all your help, friends, and have fun with this project!

A special note of thanks

This project has been made possible in part from a generous donation from Kenora's Youth In Philanthropy group, administered by the Kenora and Lake of the Woods Regional Community Foundation.  Each year, students in the local high schools have the opportunity to award grants of $500 to local charities and non-profits doing good social and environmental work in our community.  This year, the Beaver Brae YIP group awarded a grant to TIK, and we are most appreciative for this support.  The grant has been put toward costs for materials, advertising and website maintenance.  

Richard Tolton