How to save Lake Erie’s disappearing shorelines

New research suggests that the rate of erosion will spike in the next 60 years, putting wildlife, property, and people at risk — and experts say we need to act now
By Mary Baxter - Published on Jul 22, 2019
Steve Withers bought lakeside property in Chatham-Kent two years ago. (Mary Baxter)



WHEATLEY — Steve Withers looks out over the water just west of his property. Eighteen months ago, he says, the shallow bay had been land, and the metre-wide beach, part of Lake Erie’s Wheatley Provincial Park, had been protective bluff. Now, though, encroaching water is threatening his once-safe Chatham-Kent home. “This is in the last week,” says the retired postal worker. “What you can see there, all the trees that have slid down.”

At Point Pelee National Park, a 10-minute drive west, 12 hectares of land were lost to erosion between 2010 ­and 2017. A UNESCO-designated wetland, the park is one of the last remaining wildlife refuges along the highly developed northwestern shoreline and a critical stop for migratory birds and butterflies.

Each year, erosion destroys roughly half a hectare of forest vegetation. All told, says Tammy Dobbie, the park’s biologist, erosion has helped put 62 plant and animal species at risk. “It’s significant,” she says. “The park is so small, and it’s so fragmented and isolated from other natural areas that any loss of land is very important.”

Tim Byrne, director of watershed-management services at the Essex Region Conservation Authority, notes that erosion is part of the natural cycle of land loss and accumulation in Lake Erie. But, he says, high waters combined with human activities such as sand mining, property development, and shoreline armouring — which involves protecting properties from erosion and flooding via, for example, break walls — have disrupted the cycle. Now, the region is in a state of near-constant erosion. “We are well beyond crisis management,” Byrne says. “Something needs to happen and should be happening now.”

Lake Erie’s entire north shoreline has been affected. In 2018, flooding and erosion from spring storms caused $3.5 million in damage to 400 homes and cottages between Point Pelee and Wheatley. According to a 2017 Kettle Creek Conservation Authority study, roughly four metres of shoreline are lost to erosion each year farther east, near Port Stanley, putting more than $34 million worth of buildings in harm’s way.

Many suspect that climate change is exacerbating the issue. Peter Zuzek, a coastal-planning expert, says that, as yet, no study has focused on the impact of climate change on the Great Lakes shorelines — but he’s working to change that. His environmental planning firm, Zuzek Inc., along with two engineering firms, a professor at the University of Waterloo, and partners at three levels of government, this year launched a $450,000 study with two main parts: now-completed computer modelling of wave height and storm surges on the lower Great Lakes that will be used for impact projections, and a series of four case studies, now underway, that will help create strategies to cope with the changes. The project is expected to wrap up in 2020.

Preliminary findings suggest that, if climate change continues on its current path, in 60 years, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario will have no ice cover whatsoever. In Lake Erie’s western basin, this will mean more than double the winter wave energy — basically, the power with which waves move across the lake’s surface. Zuzek says that this, in turn, will double the rate of erosion. The models also show that winter wave energy could increase 70 to 120 per cent along the north shore of Lake Erie’s central basin, 120 per cent east of Long Point, and 80 per cent along the Niagara Peninsula shoreline. In the Kingston Basin, at the northeastern end of Lake Ontario, wave energy is also expected to double, driving erosion rates up.

As erosion worsens, he says, the region’s natural ability to withstand flooding will diminish: “Every passing storm, the risks get worse. These communities are living on these eroding shorelines. Their structures are deteriorating faster, the shoreline is eroding faster, so now the storms don’t even need to be as severe to cause the same impact they did 20 and 30 years ago.”

Ontario municipalities and conservation authorities are now trying to find a way forward, and that’s where the team’s case studies come into play. One involves creating a management plan for Erieau, a community in Chatham-Kent. Residents, the municipality, and the local conservation authority are working with Zuzek’s team to determine what actions to take to create more resiliency. Options include floodable parks and dune restoration.

How much — or even whether — shoreline armouring should play a role is a tricky question. On the one hand, armouring can slow the pace of erosion by guarding the land from the water. But, as Zuzek explains, the approach has actually contributed to the shoreline’s current erosion problems because it keeps in place sand that would otherwise have circulated through the lake and it disrupts the natural path of sand being carried in water currents along the shoreline. “The future is not good for beaches and natural areas if we make the decision to armour shorelines,” he says.

Zuzek says that Ontario should look beyond its borders for solutions. “With some good planning and engineering, these problems can be fixed, and they are around the world.” Along the East Coast of the United States, according to Linda Mortsch, the UW environmental-studies professor involved in the study, urban planners are working to develop subdivisions that can withstand temporary flooding. In the North Sea, Germany has introduced the Eider Barrage to protect the Eider River area. On Prince Edward Island, the provincial government is advising property owners not to armour shorelines.

For Withers’s property, though, it’s too late. Two years ago, when he bought his “forever” home, the 15-metre beach left plenty of room for his deck, which connected his home to the sand via a wooden staircase.

Within a year, the beach had disappeared — along with the deck. Twisted and mangled, the stairs are now too treacherous to use. He invested his entire savings in the property. “It’s worthless now,” he says.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

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