1: “The lake just keeps consuming.”

“The lake just keeps consuming.”

A tree slides down the side of the bank at Niagara Shores Park in 2016. The land is crumbling away due to erosion. (Richard Harley)

Since 1950, Niagara Shores Park — once called Happy Land, and later, simply, the Conservation Area — has lost about 90 metres of shoreline to erosion.

Breathtaking photos and exclusive aerial video shot from a drone flying high above Lake Ontario this spring and summer show how the pounding, high lake water in 2017 and 2019 has taken a major toll on several kilometres of shoreline as well as the park, which is owned by Parks Canada.

This year alone, the secluded public park, located just west of Old Town and near the new Niagara Region sewage treatment plant, has lost large chunks of its lakeside embankment and numerous trees have fallen into the lake. 

NOTL resident Chris Allen first alerted The Lake Report to the latest erosion, after viewing the devastation by canoe from about 20 feet offshore in early summer.

All along the shore for about three kilometres, from Shakespeare Avenue to Four Mile Point, Allen reported “extensive erosion and more fresh trees down.” One possibly 200-year-old oak, he says, was a few feet from falling into the lake, and there is “no hope of saving it.”

The Lake Report’s editor, Richard Harley, having grown up frequenting the park, also has observed its collapse over the years. However, rather than rushing to publish a few photographs of the devastation, we decided to launch a much more in-depth investigation and it became a summer-long project.

The park has about 580 metres of shoreline, 330 metres of which is naturally eroding, according to Parks Canada.

Parks Canada spokesperson Rae Kingdon says because the erosion “does not present a risk to cultural or natural resources, nor does it threaten any infrastructure,” there are no plans to try to limit the damage.

In an interview for The Lake Report’s documentary video, Parks Canada’s asset manager for southwestern Ontario, Brendan Buggeln, spoke with reporter Dariya Baiguzhiyeva about some of the reasons why the park has been left to erode.

Erosion is a natural process, and not all of it is bad, says Buggeln. In the case of Niagara Shores Park, erosion is necessary for a colony of nesting bank swallows, which burrow into the steep cliff faces. The endangered birds need near-vertical cliffs in order to nest and as the shoreline at the park erodes, it provides that habitat.

“We determined that any erosion mitigation we could do there would threaten the habitat of the species at risk,” says Buggeln.

Letting erosion take place also means a beach will remain, he says. Mitigating the damage with rock walls would eliminate any beach and destroy the habitat of the bank swallow.

Some Niagara-on-the-Lake residents, like Alan Plut, are concerned about the loss of beachfront in town due to shoreline protection at places like the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club and Ball’s Beach. But even Plut thinks Niagara Shores Park should be protected, as the land is eroding at an alarming rate.

Standing near the edge of the park’s cliffs today, he recalls when the park extended much farther out.

“I remember as a kid, it seemed like the tree line was it was a lot further back from the edge of the cliff. But it’s going fast,” says Plut, as he surveys the damage and exposed roots of fallen trees.

Erosion in Niagara has taken a heavy toll on what little coastal land remains.

“These roots, they’ve been completely washed off by the lake, the tree is half exposed — It’s about to topple in at any moment.”

Plut says in his lifetime, he’s watched about 40 to 50 yards of land fall into the lake.

“The lake just keeps consuming.”

Buggeln says there are methods of that can protect a shoreline, while still preserving a beach, such as beach rejuvenation and offshore breakwalls.

With Lake Ontario water levels at record highs this year, the steep bank is eroding faster, he says. As the waves crash into it, large chunks fall away.

“If you happen to be down there, (the water) is like a steam shovel taking chunks of the earth down,” says lakefront land owner Bruce Ferguson, who has seen extensive erosion damage on his family property over his lifetime.

Niagara Shores Park is losing about 1.1 metres of shoreline per year, Parks Canada says, but, as Kingdon notes, no mitigation measures are planned. Given that Parks Canada opted to protect the bank swallow habitat by leaving the site as-is, no detailed costing was developed for the other options, says Kingdon.

As the lake swallows the shoreline, local residents and longtime visitors to Niagara Shores Park have started to take notice.

The impactful sight has left some residents stunned by the overall damage and the lack of preventive measures to fix them.

Scott Maxwell, of Niagara Falls, has been hiking along the Niagara Shores path since he was young. He says the changes he’s seen occurring at the park are “astounding.”

“When I was a kid in the ’60s, this would go out 250, 300 feet. There used to be the army huts here and officer’s barracks,” he says of the area next to the path along Niagara Shores Park. The path has since grown over and the beach isn’t as sandy, or accessible, as he remembers it.

Cindy Maxwell, who joins him for walks along the path, notes “devastating changes” and erosion along the way. She says some parts of the beach have become virtually inaccessible in just a year.

“Last year we used to walk here, down to the beach – you can’t get to that place now,” she says.

She thinks it’s a shame the beach isn’t being maintained at all.

“Back in the ’70s the water came up 10, 15 feet. All this used to be a sandbar, it was wide open into the lake,” Maxwell says. He also notes that where the area once allowed for painted turtles to nest along the sandbanks, the high-water levels and erosion damage have put an end to that.

“Painted turtles used to nest here, and hatch and I haven’t seen one for a long time,” he says.

Beth Turner has lived in NOTL for several months and has been walking the path since she moved to town. She says even over the last few months, she’s noticed drastic changes to the shoreline and the park.

“Oh, we’ve definitely noticed a change in the erosion over that time. We’ve seen new trees down into ground. It’s really sad,” she says.

“I think it’s terrible because it’s really changing the whole way the entire park looks, losing the beautiful trees, and it doesn’t feel safe anymore.”

She says if she had young children, she wouldn’t allow them to walk near the edge, commenting on how easily the trees have fallen in and how dangerous the path is becoming.

In other parts of Niagara, Parks Canada has done extensive shoreline protection to mitigate damage to cultural assets, while others like Ferguson are left to deal with erosion at their own expense, and have questions — and theories — about why lake levels have been so high in previous years.

Go to Part 2: “It’s a threatened species in Canada.”