Ontario under water: What’s causing the floods in the east?

Record flooding has been devastating shoreline communities in eastern Ontario. Some point to climate change — others say an international water-regulation plan is to blame
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Oct 16, 2019
A woman brings sandbags in a kayak to her home during a flood.
A woman brings sandbags in a kayak to her home in Constance Bay in April. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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Every week until the 2019 Canadian election, TVO.org will look at the federal issues that matter to Ontarians. This week, we tackle climate change — and flooding, in particular — in a three-part series. Watch for Part 2 on Wednesday.

Jeff Wheeldon can only watch as record-high water levels in Lake Ontario slow his Brighton realty business. “I’ve had listings, not even lakeshore, but near lakeshore, that have been listed for six months,” he says, “because if the road to the house is underwater, no one is going to buy that house.”

While canvassing as the federal Green party candidate for Northumberland–Peterborough South, Wheeldon has learned that he’s not the only local who’s paying the price. “I was knocking on doors on Harbour Street, and somebody said, ‘I had to redo my entire seawall, and it cost me $70,000,’” he says.

In the spring of 2017, record flooding — likely the “most extraordinary conditions to ever occur,” according to a 2018 report by the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board — devastated shoreline communities in eastern Ontario and western Quebec, forcing thousands to evacuate their homes and causing more than $200 million in insured damage. Then, this spring, more records were broken. By late May, water levels on Lake Ontario were nearly a metre higher than average. Roads and basements flooded, resulting in $74 million in insured damage in this province alone.

Bob Clark, contracts manager at MetalCraft Marine, a Kingston company that builds fire and patrol boats, says that, if the lake had risen just another eight inches, the waterfront business would have been forced to close. “And we have all this work on order,” he says. “We do about $20 million in business every year. We employ 90-plus people.”

According to experts, the frequent floods aren’t the result of coincidence. In April, federal environment minister Catherine McKenna placed the blame on increased rainfall caused by climate change. Blair Feltmate, head of the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, referred to such flooding as the “evolving normal because climate change is here to stay.”

In response, the federal government has unveiled a number of initiatives. Last August, Liberal MP Kim Rudd announced $150,000 in funding to conduct flood mapping (identifying flood- and erosion-prone areas) of the shoreline between Ajax and Brighton. The funding, part of Public Safety Canada’s Natural Disaster Mitigation Program, will assist three regional conservation authorities in creating shoreline-management plans, which aim to protect wetlands and prevent development in flood-prone areas.

Last month, the federal government promised almost $30 million in joint federal-municipal funding for erosion-mitigation projects on the shoreline between Scarborough and Etobicoke. A little over a week later, Mark Gerretsen, incumbent Liberal candidate for Kingston and the Islands, announced more than $20 million in federal funding for two infrastructure projects. The first will involve separating sanitary and storm sewers in Kingston’s downtown core, a move the government says will “help protect over 31,000 Kingston residents against flooding.”

The second will involve building 2,140 metres of “sloping rock structure“ to reinforce the shoreline, and repairing a further 1,052 metres of existing shore wall. “Kingston’s economy was built on this lake,” Gerretsen says. “A ton of our tourism industry is dependent on access to water: boat tours, sailing regattas, cottages in the area. Many of our industries are heavily dependent on having access to the water.”

But not everyone agrees that infrastructure projects are the answer. “We think, ‘We own property near the shoreline, and the shoreline’s eroding — we need to harden it to protect ourselves,’” says Perry Sisson, director of engineering and field operations for the Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority. “Unfortunately, every time we do that, it interrupts the natural process.” Added infrastructure, he notes, can hinder the natural flow of sediment along a shoreline, increasing erosion and potentially disrupting wetlands and animal habitats.

And not everyone believes climate change is contributing to the flooding — instead, they put the blame on Plan 2014, a water-regulation plan that manages levels and flows in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. According to the International Joint Commission, a bi-national organization that governs waters shared by the United States and Canada, while the previous plan had “unnaturally compressed water levels and harmed coastal ecosystems,” Plan 2014 was “designed to provide for more natural variations of water levels,” It was researched and debated for 16 years before going into effect in January 2017 — just over three months before the first major flooding along the lake.

In eastern Ontario, the plan remains polarizing. Clark, of Metalcraft Marine, says that if he could tell the federal candidates in Kingston just one thing, it would be “repeal Plan 2014.”

Many homeowners on both sides of Lake Ontario note that they hadn’t experienced flooding until Plan 2014 was implemented. “I keep hearing, ‘Record rainfall, record rainfall…’ It’s not record rainfall,” says Clark. “The real problem is they didn’t let the bloody water out.” New York governor Andrew Cuomo has also been an outspoken critic of the IJC. “The IJC’s job is to manage the flow of water,” he said in May. “When you get to a point where you have flooding, by definition, you have not done your job.”

Michael Barrett, Conservative candidate for Leeds–Grenville–Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, and Cheryl Gallant, Conservative candidate for Renfrew–Nipissing–Pembroke, have challenged Plan 2014. (Gallant told the Ottawa Citizen this month that “flooding only became a problem with the federal government signing Plan 2014.”) Barrett told TVO.org via email that, earlier this year, he asked the federal government for a “formal investigation into the implementation of Plan 2014.”

Stephanie Bell, NDP candidate for Bay of Quinte, says that Plan 2014 is “not working in favour of Lake Ontario.” But she thinks that scrapping it altogether is not the answer. “We have to have a more public and obvious debate about it,” she says, “as opposed to this very simplified version of the debate where’s it only about the previous plan versus the new plan.”

The IJC rejects the suggestion that Plan 2014 is to blame for the flooding: “What happened after the inception of the new plan were exceptional meteorological circumstances. We had the wettest spring in 2017,” IJC commissioner and Canadian chair Pierre Béland told The Agenda’s Steve Paikin in September. “[Flooding] is not due to the way we manage the dam; it’s due to what is sent to us by above.”

Back in Brighton, Wheeldon says that climate change, rather than Plan 2014, is the likely culprit. “I really feel for everybody who’s been affected by it. But I’m also really suspicious of any politician who says, ‘Yeah, we’re going to fix this — we’re going to change Plan 2014,’” he says, adding with a laugh, “So I don’t expect it to necessarily be a vote-winner for me.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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