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Communities pleading for action to prevent further damage from Lake Ontario flooding

Belleville’s mayor blames International Joint Commission for Lake Ontario flooding
WATCH ABOVE: Belleville Mayor Mitch Panciuk says IJC set base water levels too high (July 24)

As a group of eastern Ontario mayors heads to Ottawa to plead for action to curb the effects of flooding from Lake Ontario, advocates are calling for major changes and urgent funding for municipalities.

“The entire Lake Ontario basin was severely affected last year. Given the prognostications thus far and the actual hard evidence of lake levels right now, we expect 2020 to be a repeat of 2019 — if not worse,” Steve Ferguson, mayor of Prince Edward County, told Global News.

Ferguson, along with the mayors of Belleville and Quinte West, said they are meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland on Wednesday in an effort to “really wave the flag about our need for help” and “underscore the plight of our communities [as well as] the effects of this flooding on our businesses, on our entire community and in some cases our reputation.”
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READ MORE: Lack of ice on Lake Ontario a sign of the times, Queen’s University professor says

He said Prince Edward County, the island south of Trenton and Belleville, experienced the worst year for damage in 2019. In towns like Picton, he said, water levels submerged the docks of a local inn and the docks at the local yacht club.

In communities such as Consecon, Wellington, Long Point and near Sandbanks Provincial Park, parts of the shoreline experienced severe erosion and some areas had to be closed off due to flooding.

“The effects are pretty profound and far-reaching as far as the water goes,” Ferguson said.

He went on to describe how the county’s thriving tourism and agriculture sectors took a hit. Ferguson said some visitors simply didn’t come to the county amid questions about whether or not accommodations were affected, noting that even some campgrounds were washed out.

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Plan 2014

While 2018 saw drought-like conditions, the record-high water levels in 2019 were similar to conditions in 2017. But before that, Ferguson said he couldn’t recall during his time any significant flooding events to majorly affect Prince Edward County.

He said one of the biggest changes in recent memory that has come under the scrutiny of many is the International Joint Commission (IJC)’s Plan 2014. The organization governs major water-related issues that affect Canada and the United States. Its Plan 2014 governs the outflow of water from Lake Ontario through the Moses-Saunders Dam near Cornwall on the St. Lawrence River.

The plan is a point of contention for several groups, including the grassroots volunteer organization United Shoreline Ontario.

President Sarah Delicate said the plan has rules to protect downstream communities in Quebec and rules to protect the shipping industry, but added there aren’t enough protections for Lake Ontario and those who live along its shorelines.

READ MORE: Thousand Islands resident files human rights claim against the IJC

“We’re advocating for Plan 2014 just to be rebalanced. There is no magical plan that’s going to stop all flooding, but we drew the short straw in Plan 2014. The damage has not been shared equally and we are bearing the brunt of it,” she said, adding one of the changes she would like to see instituted is an upper limit for Lake Ontario water levels — one that would trigger an additional release of water through the dam.

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“Once we hit that limit, then everything is on the table, then shipping has to take some of the hit and Quebec has to take some of the hit.

“But right now that’s not how it’s set up. Lake Ontario just rises, rises, rises.”

When it comes to communities east of Toronto on Lake Ontario that experienced damages from flooding last year, Delicate is blunt in her assessment.

“It’s an absolute crisis,” she said.

“It was catastrophic for many areas in 2019. The damage it has done for families, for municipalities, to businesses, to the environment, and heading for potentially a third year is a devastation for people.”

Delicate said after surveying hundreds of people in affected areas, her group found a majority of people affected were seniors — those who are unable to move quickly to get things like sandbags.

International Joint Commission to announce ‘expedited review’

Sarah Lobrichon, a public affairs advisor with the IJC, acknowledged that water levels in the Great Lakes are “extremely high” currently. She said the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board is doing “as much as possible to remove as much water as possible from Lake Ontario.”

“It’s important to note that under any regulation plan, there would have been flooding because of the incredible amount of rain and precipitation we’ve been receiving over the entire Great Lakes basin,” Lobrichon said.

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In the summer, she said the dam experienced an outflow record with up to 10,000 cubic metres per second — much higher than normal.

READ MORE: International Joint Commission announces changes that could ease springtime flooding

“We recognize the severe human and financial impact … We are very concerned about the high water levels,” Lobrichon said.

As for Plan 2014, she said officials have actually been “deviating” from it “for quite a while now” and thereby allowing more water to be discharged from the dam.

But when asked about the start of shipping season (which is expected to be some time in April), she said some of that outflow will have to be reduced — adding talks are underway to see what can be done to help. It’s currently unclear how that reduction in Lake Ontario outflow, combined with potential precipitation, will impact communities.

Lobrichon said an announcement is expected to made within a couple of weeks announcing an 18-to-24-month “expedited” review of Plan 2014 to see if anything can be “tweaked,” adding there will be an increase in community consultations.

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How Toronto is rushing to address flooding risk

Looking west, Nancy Gaffney, a waterfront specialist with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, told Global News the only area in Toronto to experience residential flooding is the Toronto Islands (since regulations across most of the city have further setbacks from the shoreline for homes than areas to the east).

She said they and City of Toronto officials have been racing to protect the city after significant flooding three years ago.

“2017 came in very quick and it went up very fast … we were very unprepared for it,” she said, calling their response reactionary.

READ MORE: City staff ramp up efforts to protect Toronto Islands from flooding

Over two years, she said there has been a rush to document various areas impacted at different times.

“We knew what was going to be impacted at what water level and so we could be more proactive that way. So while 2019 went higher than what we had seen before, it came slower and stayed longer,” she said, adding that through building berms and raising roads on the islands, it was able to mitigate flooding and keep emergency access going.

“We’re trying to make sure the money going into the islands this year is not a one-off, like the sandbags and the aqua barriers. We’re trying to make sure the berms are going in quickly and the road is raised quickly in the most vulnerable areas quickly.”

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Gaffney said it’s unknown what Toronto will face in terms of water levels, but added higher levels could impact construction projects aimed at curbing the effects of flooding. She also said work is expected to continue over the next 10 years to repair and enhance public areas affected by shoreline erosion, including areas such as the Scarborough Bluffs.

Calls for action, money in order to tackle flooding

Meanwhile, Ferguson, Delicate and several County departments are holding a public meeting in Wellington Wednesday evening to prepare County residents ahead of anticipated flooding in 2020. Regardless, both said the upper levels of government need to take action.

Ferguson said he’s open to potential solutions, such as increased funding for infrastructure to protect his community or regulatory changes in government aimed at addressing outflows, adding a crisis point “is not far off.”

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Delicate was firm in her calls for money to be given to municipalities for emergency preparedness and to protect residents.

“It takes a lot of time, money and effort to get the resources to actually do flood protection. We protect shipping, but it’s time to protect the shoreline,” she said.

“If a forest fire was coming to a community, you would never say to them, ‘Here’s buckets and there’s a tap, fill up your buckets with water and figure out how you’re going to ward off this forest fire,’ but it’s exactly what we’re saying to the shoreline. ‘We’re going to give you some sand and bags, but you folks figure out how you’re going to hold this back.’ It’s ridiculous.”