First the pandemic, then the flood

Another water battle looms for the Toronto Islands and shoreline residents as lake levels rise and the coronavirus crisis complicates relief efforts



For many people living on the shores of Lake Ontario, COVID-19 isn’t their only problem.

The lake is 21 centimetres higher than it was at this time last year and 51 centimetres above the long-term average. And the water won’t stop rising for many weeks.

That means sections of Toronto’s shoreline will flood or erode this spring, just as they did in 2017 and 2019. The affected areas will not only include the Toronto Islands but also potentially everywhere from the Port Lands and the adjoining Quayside site to many other pieces of invaluable shoreline real estate.

That’s why hundreds of concerned residents packed a March 3 meeting at the Harbourfront Centre. They wanted to know what all three levels of government are doing to help them prepare for the flooding and lessen damage from it.

The city and feds are pumping $29.6-million into flood and erosion control on the Toronto Islands, parts of Cherry Beach and the Eastern Beaches. That work was recently sped up. And within the next few weeks, a city resiliency group focused on Lake Ontario levels will have its first meeting.

On March 9 the Ontario government unveiled a new flood-protection strategy. The first priority is to understand flood risks. The next is to strengthen governance of flood risks. The plan also aims to boost flood preparedness, response and recovery, and lastly to increase funding of flood-risk reduction efforts.

But the province didn’t pledge any money for this instead, it’s relying on the feds for the cash.

At the federal level, four cabinet ministers, several shoreline MPs, representatives of federal port authorities and a handful of residents from flood-prone communities met in Ottawa on March 11 to talk about ways to mitigate the effects of rising water. And, shortly before the short meeting started, 15 Conservative MPs signed a letter to the prime minister asking him to form a bipartisan committee to address high-water issues.

The International Joint Commission (IJC), the Canada-US agency which regulates water flows in the Great Lakes through the Moses-Saunders Power Dam at Cornwall, Ontario, has also announced unprecedented steps to try to help keep water levels in check. The IJC has moved away from strict adherence to official guidelines for their work, known as Plan 2014, by letting more water flow through the dam than ever before. 

But on March 31, because the IJC is allowing the St. Lawrence Seaway shipping season to start on April 1 (only a few days later than normal), and because high water flow through the dam makes ship navigation difficult both above and below the dam, the IJC announced it will cut back the water flow through the dam.

They’ll still leave a higher water flow than normal during the start of the shipping season, which is another first for the IJC. They’ll only throttle it back next month when the water volume pouring from the Ottawa River toward Montreal skyrockets during the spring thaw.

However, all of this is likely too little, too late to prevent widespread flooding along Lake Ontario again this year on the scale as what happened in 2017 and 2019.

That’s why many directly affected residents are calling for urgent action. The organization United Shoreline Ontario, which represents thousands who live along Ontario’s lake shorelines, wants immediate provincial funding and resources for municipal emergency flood response and compensation for flood damage.

“We know it’s [the flooding] coming. So how do we get in front of this?,” the organization’s founder and president, Sarah Delicate, asked at the March 3 Toronto meeting.

In the 2018 book The Great Lakes Water Wars, Peter Annin details the largest, albeit very little-known, water diversion ever on the Great Lakes: the 1943 reversal of the flow of the Ogoki River. The northwestern-Ontario river flows into Lake Superior via Lake Nipigon, instead of coursing into Hudson Bay via James Bay as it originally did.

The result, and the impetus for the project, is a sizeable increase in the amount of water that flows through the Great Lakes into the giant Niagara-Falls hydroelectricity plants.

Canadian officials have been asked several times over the decades to halt the reversed flow during high-water periods, most recently a March 20 plea from a consortium of shore property owners from the US and Canada. But they’ve only agreed in rare instances. The Great Lakes’ hydroelectric plants are still money-making machines, thanks in no small part to high water levels, so it’s no surprise that a new plant is being planned.

The $3.3-billion proposal for the Meaford area on Georgian Bay is by TC Energy (formerly known as TransCanada), the company that owns the Coastal GasLink fracked-gas pipeline in northern B.C. that until recently was the focus of nationwide protests. 

Opposition in the Meaford area has pitted shoreline residents against the local Saugeen Ojibway Nation, which has been offered part ownership in the proposed plant by TC.

Meanwhile, thousands of people living on Lake Ontario’s shores are trying to prepare for imminent flooding.

The COVID-19 crisis is making it very challenging for them. Virus-related restrictions have forced the Toronto Islands’ Flood Preparation Committee to reduce the pace of their sandbagging efforts along the shoreline.

@nowtoronto

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