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Shoreline resiliency — not pointing fingers — solution to high water levels, says group

'Lakefront property owners are going to have to take measures to adapt. These water levels are going to fluctuate,' says official

Shoreline property owners, businesses and municipalities need to come up with a long-term coastal resilience strategy to deal with high water levels in Georgian Bay.

That's the stance taken by a non-profit focusing on water and environmental issues in Georgian Bay.

David Sweetnam, executive director of Georgian Bay Forever (GBF), teamed up with Rupert Kindersley, executive director for Georgian Bay Association, for a recent deputation to Tiny Township council.

The two explained some of the conclusions drawn from a symposium held last year in which several experts shared information with shoreline property owners to help them understand why the water levels were high and what could or could not be done about the situation.

In a detailed discussion with MidlandToday, Sweetnam explained that while he understands their presentation to Tiny council was different from the popular narrative that the International Joint Commission (IJC) has absolute control over the situation, the GBF is drawing its conclusions by focusing on the reality of the situation and the science behind it.

"There's no government entity we can yell at or get angry at," said Sweetnam. "The fact is it's just climate change impacts and precipitation levels and the amount of water."

The first thing, he explained, is that Plan 2012, which manages the existing control structure at the St. Mary's River, cannot exceed maximum outflow limits.

"That can destroy fish habitats that have been carefully rehabilitated up there," said Sweetnam. "What (the IJC) are trying to do is balance the water levels in Lakes Michigan-Huron with the levels in Lake Superior."

Secondly, he said, amateur people often forget to account for the amount of water that flows or doesn't flow through the power generation channels that take water flowing out of St. Mary's River.

"Sometimes, calculating how much water is coming out of the river up there is difficult because you have to pull information from a variety of sources," said Sweetnam.

Further, he said, once the water gets into Lakes Michigan-Huron, there's nothing controlling it all the way over to Niagara Falls.

"There's a little bit of control at the Chicago diversion, but that's balanced by the interests of eight U.S. states," said Sweetnam. "Ontario can't dictate what is done.

"We have no control over the outflow side of this equation," he added. "There's no way for the IJC to open the top up."

Other factors contributing to the situation include the difference in the sizes of the Lakes Michigan-Huron watershed (252,100 square kilometres) and the surface area for the two lakes combined (117,400 sq. km.), said Sweetnam, adding, at any water level, the storms and wave actions have become more energetic, increasing wind speeds by five per cent per decade since the 1980s.

"The ground is saturated," said Sweetnam. "It's got so much water in it that it can't absorb anymore water. That's why we've seen the fastest-ever increase in water levels from 2014 to 2017. And last year, we blew the record by just about four inches."

The real exacerbation, according to Sweetnam, is that Mother Nature has been dumping all-time record amounts of precipitation in the Great Lakes Basin since data was first collected in the late 1800s. Data shared in a GBF video shows three-year precipitation level for 2017-19 has been close to 3,100 millimetres compared to an average of 2,500 mm from 1901 to 2000.

"Once you start to look at the water-level charts for all the Great Lakes, you'll see trends that show water levels have been rocketing up in every single lake," said Sweetnam. "How do you take a system, which you can't slow down or speed up, that has record amounts of water coming in, and blame it all on the IJC?"

There are no short-term solutions, he said.

"If all we do is spend the next five years blaming the IJC, it's a complete waste of time," said Sweetnam. "It doesn't solve the problem and it doesn't address the reality. We need to have all levels of government on the same page and educate the public so we can move forward and eliminate the effects."

What is needed, he said, is a long-term vision.

"Lakefront property owners are going to have to take measures to adapt," said Sweetnam. "These water levels are going to fluctuate. There will be considerations that property owners, municipalities and individual residents will have to make to make their coastlines more resilient."

However, he added, that doesn't mean hardening the shoreline.

"Oftentimes, people try to mechanically improve shorelines by hardening it with rocks and structures," said Sweetnam. "Those can end up causing increased erosion and destroying the waterfront. It may mean naturalizing the shoreline that is currently hardened. We also need to recognize that beach dunes and beaches are dynamic that will change as the wave action generates changes."

Some actions municipalities can take, he said, include using higher watermarks, changing requirements for shoreline septic systems, and offering to trade land with shoreline business owners that can't retreat uphill.

His suggestions weren't readily accepted at Tiny's committee of the whole meeting.

"If I'm to understand the thrust of your presentation, it is that the current mechanisms that are in place to have impact on the water levels are adequate or effective and that manmade decisions are not exacerbating the impact," said Coun. Tony Mintoff. "That we should accept these extreme water levels are simply a result of climate change. Further, no manmade solutions are available to at least partially mitigate the billions of dollars of damage created by record high water levels in Lakes Michigan-Huron."

He said the GBF and GBA were being shortsighted by suggesting that the only solution is to build resiliency.

"Quite frankly, in my opinion, I think it's premature to just throw our hands up in the air and say we can't really control it because it would require great efforts to revisit agreements," said Mintoff, adding he did not agree that organizations, such as the IJC, shouldn't work on reducing the few inches lowered by controlling the Long Lac and Ogoki diversion didn't make a difference. 

Kindersely said the two weren't suggesting nothing can be done.

"The current structures and tools we have available to deal with extreme water levels are not adequate," he said, "and we will specifically be recommending that we need to be expanding those tools. Unfortunately, in an ideal world, we should be able to adjust the flow at Long Lac and Ogoki, but it simply can't be done."

Deputy Mayor Steffen Walma said he agreed that the recommendations around changing high watermarks should be looked into at the municipal level.

However, he added, "There are some conflicting views and seeing as how no one around this table is an expert, perhaps we can take this information to the (Severn Sound Environmental Association) for comment and some recommendations on actions to take."