5: “I wouldn’t be happy to know it’s manmade.”

The Moses-Saunders Dam controls water levels between Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway. (Sourced)

“I wouldn’t be happy to know it’s manmade.”

The last few years have been worse than others for shoreline erosion, as is evident by numerous photos of fallen trees, sand and clay.

When searching for the cause of the increased decay, everything points to high lake levels in 2017 and 2019.

Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Bruce Ferguson, who owns a home on a portion of his late grandfather’s property, believes it is largely due to a change in the way the water is let out of Lake Ontario.

In 2017, the International Joint Commission changed the way it lets water flow into the St. Lawrence River.

Ferguson doesn’t think the date is entirely coincidental.

“I think everyone is saying, ‘Well, it’s not the fault of the International Joint Commission, it was just bad luck that they changed the regulations, and then they had this tremendously wet year.’ “

“There’s got to be some co-relation to what the changes are with the International Joint Commission, and the way they’re controlling the lake. A lot of people said – including a lot of people in the state of New York, who have been very vocal about this – that the IJC should have released more water out of the lake sooner. When everything gets flooded, then they can’t, because they’ll flood down stream. The province of Quebec and the Ottawa River is already full.”

Experts say the high lake level is a result of increased precipitation, amplified by the effects of climate change.

“I think climate change and everything is being blamed for all this, but I can tell you, this is nothing new,” says Ferguson.

Bird Studies Canada officials wouldn’t comment on “rumours” but say high lake levels this year, seem to have had a negative impact on bank swallows, with erosion happening at the worst possible times for the birds’ nesting cycle.

As of late August, water levels in both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie are dropping steadily, but they’re still significantly above average.

“All Great Lakes had record (levels) this year, and Lake Erie and Lake Ontario had all-time record highs since our first reliable data was recorded in 1918,” says Frank Seglenieks, a water resources engineer with Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Lake Ontario peaked at an all-time high of 75.92 metres on June 15. Since then, there’s been a drop of 43 cm, to 75.49 metres, which is still 55 cm above average.

“Even by the end of the year, the levels will still be above average,” says Seglenieks. 

This comes on the heels of high water levels in 2017, which reached 75.88 metres, and caused major erosion problems and tree loss along the shoreline in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“Impacts this year include loss of beach at Lakeside Park in Port Dalhousie, the carousel there was closed for much of the season, and marinas had to scramble to build floating docks,” says Steve Miller, senior manager of water resources for the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. 

The spike in water levels was “caused by a very wet winter and above average precipitation into spring,” Seglenieks explains. Data from Environment and Climate Change Canada, a federal government agency, backs that up, showing very high rainfall rates in the spring months. 

May of this year saw 130.2 mm of rainfall in the Vineland area, much higher than the average of 75.6 mm. Welland saw 97.2 mm versus the average of 84.7 mm in the same month.

In June and July, when the water level in Lake Ontario started to stabilize and drop, Vineland had dryer weather, with just 58.5 mm of precipitation compared to the average of 85.1 mm. Welland also saw significantly less rain in July, with 49 mm versus the average of 85 mm.

Lake Ontario is affected by local rainfall, but also by the flow of water from Lake Erie, over Niagara Falls and down the Niagara River.

There are no controls on the inflow of water into Lake Ontario from Lake Erie, a fact that Rob Caldwell, Canadian secretary of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, emphasizes with a quote from Gordon Lightfoot’s epic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”  – “Lake Ontario takes in what Lake Erie can send her.” 

Once the water level is up, there’s no simple solution to bring it down. 

“The only spot we can manage is controlling outflows at the Moses-Saunders Power Dam  in Cornwall. It’s the only way we can influence water levels of Lake Ontario,” says Caldwell.

But any water released from Lake Ontario goes into the St. Lawrence River. “Operators have a balancing act to plan, because letting too much water out would flood Montreal, and affect freighter navigation. Not enough water let out and Lake Ontario rises,” Miller explains. 

Further exacerbating the situation this spring was the heavy rain and flooding in the Ottawa River basin, affecting eastern Ontario and Quebec. “That limited how much they could release from Lake Ontario,” he adds.

The St. Lawrence River board started releasing water at the dam in June and it has continued for more than two months, the longest period ever, surpassing the 55 days of outflow in 2017. 

Since June 13, the dam has had “outflow at a steady rate of 10,400 cubic metres per second. That was slightly reduced on Aug. 21, to 10,110 cubic metres per second – to keep currents in the St. Lawrence River safe,” says Caldwell.

“Outflow from the dam results in stronger currents in the St. Lawrence, which can pose a danger to all users, whether swimmers, boaters, divers or ships,” he says.

The current is 50 per cent stronger in some places in the St. Lawrence this summer.

Seglenieks shares a story from a cottager in the Thousand Islands area, who reported that when he jumps in the water off his dock, the current normally takes him downstream about 80 feet in 60 seconds, and he is able to swim back.

When he jumped in the first time this summer, the current took him 120 feet in 60 seconds, and he couldn’t swim back. His son came out in a boat to rescue him, and then “cleaved the dock off the shore trying to dock in the strong current.”

Water levels, while falling, will be above average right through the fall, according to Miller.

While we “haven’t seen big storm events so far,” the next threat is the chance that “a storm from the northeast could blow in, typically late October into November, that’s a critical time for storms and shoreline damage, erosion, and flooding,” he warns. And if the storm surge comes from Kingston toward our shores it could cause serious damage.

The effect of going into the next season with above average levels “is dependent on snow pack and rainfall,” says Miller. 

“If we get a harsh winter with prolonged ice cover and high snowfall, we’ll see high water levels again. If we have a mild winter with low precipitation, we’ll get some relief,” predicts Mike McKay, executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor.

Longer term, while “it’s a natural phenomenon for water levels to fluctuate, extreme variation might be the new normal,” says McKay, adding there’s “a link to climate change as one of the factors.”  

Other experts are of similar opinion. “With climate change, will we see more frequent and more intense flooding? Yes and yes, we just don’t know how much,” says Caldwell.

“In terms of predictions, there’s no general trend, but we can expect more extremes, of both high and low water levels. It’s hard to say when you’re in the middle of it … we’ll see more extremes, they will happen more often, but I wouldn’t want to put a number on it,” says Seglenieks.

He points out that 2012 saw record low water levels on Lake Huron and Michigan, and now in 2019 record highs in Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, so “both highs and lows fit into the scenarios in the model we’re seeing.”

Going forward, “It’s important to be adaptable, and plan for such extremes when designing infrastructure, for example, docks that can handle both high and low water levels,” Seglenieks emphasizes. 

Over at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, “every day we look at water levels and weather forecasts to assess the threat, and we issue flood warnings if conditions warrant,” Miller says.

He adds that “we’re implementing an app you can download onto your phone, which will reach individuals with warnings. It’s called Alertable. It currently pulls information and warnings from Environment Canada, but we will tailor the information we provide to our local area and conditions.”

Miller says the app will roll out early October.

Go to Part 6: “Shore it up and leave it alone.”