3: ‘An entire cherry orchard is gone.’

Lakefront homeowner Bruce Ferguson stands at the end of his property, where he’s lost more than 100 feet of land to erosion since 1969. (Richard Harley)

An entire cherry orchard is gone.

Along the shores of Lake Ontario in Niagara, private landowners are having their own troubles with erosion.

Bruce Ferguson’s family has lived in the McNab area west of Old Town for more than 100 years. In that time, he says the extensive erosion has caused him and neighbours concern.

He recalls stories of entire farm roads and orchards falling into the lake, houses being moved across the street to be saved, and of swimming on the remnants of structures that had been consumed long ago.

Once 300 acres, when his grandfather owned it, Ferguson’s property has passed hands from his father to him, and been sectioned into about 1.5 acres of land for Ferguson and his wife Patricia to build a home.

“Being on the lake over the years we’ve had our share of erosion,” Ferguson says. “Over that time, we’ve lost, well we lost a cherry orchard, and then the 100 feet we’ve lost since I’ve owned it.”

The erosion has caused enough concern for him to look into historical maps of the land, which show a devastating loss of land.

He says he had the land surveyed in 2003 when he was planning on building a house on the property.

“They made up the deeds in 1969, we had it resurveyed in 2003, when we were planning on building. I knew we were losing property to erosion. I had him write down in his survey what it is now, compared to what the deed says,” he says.

The comparison revealed he had lost more than 100 feet off the east side of his property, and more than 60 off the west in 34 years.

“To put that into perspective, our house is set back 110 feet from the edge of the bank. That is about what we’ve lost off the end of the property,” Ferguson says, as he contemplates the land that has vanished. “In my lifetime, this was actually dirt and sod and trees and grass.”

After an interview for our documentary, we asked Ferguson to take us to his house to show us the extent of the erosion for ourselves. What we saw was that since 1970, he has lost almost half of the land between his back porch and the lake.

To Ferguson, erosion is nothing new — it’s just gotten worse with the high lake levels in 2017 and 2019. And he, like others along the lakefront, are wondering why.

Ferguson says the working theory is that it’s due to the changes made in lake level inputs and outputs by the International Joint Commission, which controls lake flow for Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and the Ottawa basin to Quebec.

For private land owners, whether it’s important to them or not, shoreline protection still comes with a hefty cost.

Ferguson received estimates for protection or preservation of about $1,000 per foot. That price tag “sort of adds up,” says Ferguson, who has 150 feet of beachfront property in the McNab area, about eight kilometres west of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Old Town district.

Currently there is no federal or municipal funding available for people who want to protect their property, or reclaim lost land.

“It’s unfortunate what we’ve been seeing is there’s no preventive money as such for land owners, it’s more remediation works,” says Brett Ruck, manager of environmental services for the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“When you’re looking at remediation, you’ve already sustained the damage so you’ve got to be able to protect yourself ahead of time if you think that threat is there for your property.”

As far as compensation for loss of land, Ferguson says he, too, is unaware of any money that’s available.

“I really don’t know if there is a recourse in Ontario for losses that you’ve incurred due to erosion.”

The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake has had to contend with erosion problems and has completed its own shoreline protection along the mouth of the Niagara River at Ball’s Beach Park, Nelson Park and River Beach Park.

At Ball’s Beach, a groyne — a pile of rocks to protect the shore — has been put in place to stop waves crashing, but the rocks still have to be turned and placed properly to be fully effective.

The town needs the water level to fall and approval from the Ministry of the Environment before more work can be done on the groyne.

Niagara-on-the-Lake Lord Mayor Betty Disero says there are provincial guidelines that have to be followed and that as soon as the lake levels are down, the province “should allow” the town to finish the shoreline protection.

“We’re losing land, we’re losing trees and we have to stop it before we start to lose one of our parks so the shoreline protection project is very, very important,” Disero says.

Ferguson admits, he could take the initiative to do shoreline protection on his own, but that for him, preserving beach access is more important. Some other NOTL residents, like Dave Glasz, agree, and wish the town would act to open up public beach access.

“I’m willing to tolerate a bit of erosion to preserve a beachfront,” says Ferguson. “I go down there with my grandkids, and the turtles lay their eggs on the beach, and we think it’s sort of neat.”

Go to Part 4: “It’s a national historic site.”