Business

Small businesses, residences on Great Lakes being 'destroyed' by high water this summer

Small business owners are struggling to cope with record high water levels in the Great Lakes. And while some blame the weather, others are pointing fingers at Canadian and American officials who manage shared bodies of water.

Fingers are pointed at the International Joint Commission, which regulates levels

Wendy Merkley of Andress Boat Works has had to build docks on top of her docks, due to high water levels along the Thousand Islands area of Ontario. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

Suspicion is growing that this year's high water levels in the Great Lakes are not simply the result of a snowy winter, a big spring melt, and heavy rainfall this summer. 

Fingers are pointing at the Canadian and American officials who manage shared bodies of water. The International Joint Commission introduced a new plan that allows for higher water levels in the Great Lakes three years ago.

The IJC insists weather is the problem and cites environmental science to support its position, but business owners who see the impact question the policy.

"It's a bit funny that as soon as this plan was implemented, the water started staying higher for longer," says Julian Ganton, the owner of Toronto Island SUP, a small business that rents standup paddleboards. In Lake Ontario, "people's homes are being destroyed, shorelines are being destroyed, businesses are being impacted."

Down the St Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands area of Ontario, Wendy Merkley owns Andress Boat Works. She points out that this is the second time in three years business owners have been coping with problems related to high water levels.  

"When we had flooding in 2017 everybody said it was a once-in-a-century flood. And two years later we're dealing with it again."  

Julian Ganton of Toronto Island SUP says his business is making half the money it did last year, when there was no flooding. (Laura MacNaughton/CBC)

'Act of God'

She also wonders if the IJC's new plan has contributed. "They said they wanted to let the water get higher and lower to rejuvenate the shorelines. But how much higher?" 

Plan 2014, as it's known, is a series of modifications to the 1958 plan for management of the Great Lakes. It specifies three goals: to protect against extreme water levels, to restore wetlands, and to prepare for climate change. The new maximum water level is six centimetres (a little more than two inches) higher than the previous maximum, a "more natural variation," according to an IJC document.

But the Canadian co-chair of the IJC says it would be wrong to blame this year's problems on Plan 2014. "It's nature. It's an act of God, all that rain and all that snow that happened over a period of three years. There is nothing that can be done about that," says Pierre Béland.

Pierre Béland, the Canadian co-chair of the International Joint Commission, which manages shared bodies of water, says, 'We are an international organization, and we are immune from lawsuits.' (Simon Lemieux/CBC)

The IJC points out that the upper Great Lakes, Superior, Huron and Erie, are unaffected by Plan 2014, since their water levels are not controlled; they flow toward Niagara Falls and then down into Lake Ontario. Yet those upper lakes are also at near-record levels — proof that weather is the sole cause of this summer's problems.  

Furthermore, allowing more water from Lake Ontario to flow through the dam at Cornwall, Ont., could lead to flooding downstream in Quebec. That would affect shipping, according to a recent IJC news release. 

"Any additional increase in flow would require the seaway corporations to shut down shipping on the St. Lawrence River between St. Lambert and Cape Vincent. The economic costs for disrupting the supply chain of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence economy is estimated at $50 million per day." 

Béland insists the high levels are temporary, and that conditions can change quickly. "In 2013 Lake Huron was at its lowest ever. Now just a couple of centimetres and it will be a record high. So things evolve quite rapidly," he says.

Climate change also blamed

Suspicions go beyond Plan 2014, however. People are also talking about climate change. 

"The term I use is a perfect storm," says Wendy Merkley, before listing climate change, record snowfalls and Plan 2014 as a disastrous combination. "Everything contrived to make this happen."

The Thousand Island Playhouse in Gananoque, Ont., bills itself as Canada's only dockside theatre, but this year the docks are half submerged. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

She expects her revenue this season to be down 20 to 25 per cent. "To a small business, that's a lot of money," she says. "Two years of having to rebuild is pretty tough. And you know, a small business owner isn't going to survive that. There are people saying we're just a little guy and we don't count."

In theory though, global warming could mean lower water levels, as heat causes more water to evaporate from the surface of lakes and rivers.

David Fay, a senior engineering adviser at the International Joint Commission, describes precipitation and evaporation as being in a "tug of war" for the greater impact on water levels. "Those counteract each other to some extent," he explains. "Right now the precipitation is dominating, so to say this is a climate change event — nobody is saying that."

He says climate change has been blamed for both high and low water levels. "As recently as 2013, when there were record low levels on Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, everyone was saying climate change was causing that," he points out. 

Legal action

South of the border in New York state, lakeside residents have been talking about legal action. There too, small businesses are trying to cope with damage.

Sen. Chuck Schumer recently visited the town of Fair Haven to tour the Lake Ontario shoreline and speak on behalf of the community. "Something is very wrong," he told the small crowd that assembled in front of television cameras. "You can't sit back and say we can't do anything, that is not acceptable."

He also takes aim at the IJC, saying Plan 2014 must be reviewed. "Examine it top to bottom, tear it apart and put a new plan in that works."

The IJC's Canadian co-chair says legal action would be "unfortunate."

Business owners on the Toronto Islands say fewer visitors are coming, due to this year's flooding. (Laura MacNaughton/CBC)

"We are an international organization, and we are immune from lawsuits," Pierre Béland says. He believes fluctuating water levels are a fact of life, and other steps would be more productive. 

"I think what's required now is for us, government and municipalities to look at ways to deal with such high waters in the future," he says. "Are we going to rebuild the same structures on the same spot year after year and see high water destroying them?" 

But long-term planning is cold comfort to entrepreneurs who are seeing the impact on their bank accounts right now, and who can do nothing to change the weather.

Julian Ganton's paddleboard rental business is making only half the money it did last year. "I'm sure it's very similar for a lot of the cafés and the other island businesses as well," he says. "Businesses everywhere that are on the waterfront are affected by this."

About the Author

Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.

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