Hamilton braces for more flooding as Lake Ontario hits highest recorded point

In Hamilton all that water is making its presence known by overrunning and damaging popular trails along the lake and swamping parking lots near the harbour.

Frequent flooding has parks staff considering making changes to shoreline trails

Rick Davidson picks his way across a flooded parking lot near Hamilton's harbour. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Lake Ontario water levels have hit the highest point in recorded history, but as flooding continues to close pathways and consume parks and parking lots, officials in Hamilton say there's little they can do.

"The problem is we have such extensive shoreline," explained Parks Department head Kara Bunn.

"The plan to sandbag would be quite a large project for us and at this point a lot of the areas that are along those shorelines are experiencing a lot of wave action so we don't feel we'd be able to build something substantial enough to combat that wave action."

Those short-term concerns are matched by longer-term fears the city's waterfront trails may need to be moved or elevated away from low-lying areas to protect them from frequent floods that have caused serious damage in recent years.

Authorities in Toronto announced Thursday afternoon that Lake Ontario water levels have hit 76.03 metres above sea level, topping the previous record of 75.93 metres set in 2017. Staff there have responded by deploying thousands of sandbags and dozens of super-sized sump pumps.

In Hamilton all that water is making its presence known by overrunning and damaging popular trails along the lake. Closer to the city centre, portions of parking lots near the harbour have been transformed into giant puddles with pumps working hard to keep the pavement above the surface.

One big puddle

"This is a hell of a big puddle," said Rick Davidson, who had to roll his pants up to his knees to cross the parking lot near Leander Boat Club to get to and from his boat.

Crews work to pump water from overflowing drains near Hamilton's waterfront. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Davidson cracked a joke about being able to sail right up to his car, but said the flooding situation makes him wonder about what will happen next year. And that could be no laughing matter.

"It's hard to fight with water. You'll lose," he said, gesturing at the soaked area as a car carefully drove through the puddle and a seagull swam nearby. ​

Rick Davidson joked the parking lot is so swamped he could sail to his car. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

As the water continues to rise, the bay has slowly crept up on the back of the boat club building, all but covering the wooden dock and causing headaches and worries for rowers.

President Fred Toy said the areas they typically launch from are now underwater, so they've worked out a contingency plan with the city to launch from a beach area near the beached tugboat at Pier 4 Park.

"We can't row right close to the shoreline because the shoreline has changed," he said, adding flooding means lots of tree branches and other debris will be floating in the water, not to mention much of the armour stone meant to protect the park now presents an underwater hazard.

The water has all but covered the wooden dock behind the Leander Boat Club and is almost touching the back wall of its building. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

High water in 2017 forced the club to sandbag some of its doorways — something Toy said they might have to do again this year. But so far there hasn't been any major damage and it's not all bad news.

"Because we store boats it's not as much of a concern. It's not like it's an office or a residence. If you open up the doors it's just ... concrete."

City hoping infrastructure still stands when water recedes

Bunn says the city's current plan is to keep monitoring the situation to try to keep parts of the trails further from the water open.

So far, she says, no significant infrastructure has been wrecked, but if the wind and waves start threatening something more substantial sandbagging is an option that will be considered.

The combination of high winds and high water level is what causes the most damage by eroding the shoreline, she said.

"If the winds stay calm hopefully our infrastructure will still be there when the waters drop back down."

Water from the bay has slowly seeped into low-lying areas near the shoreline, covering parking lots and damaging pathways. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Still, Bunn says it's "depressing" many of the fixes put in place after the waterfront trails were wrecked by flooding in 2017 have been washed away.

The federal government has committed $13 million to a city plan focused on protecting its Lake Ontario shoreline, but staff are still carrying out studies so the work hasn't started yet. 

Parks staff are studying flooding issues and say one possibility is moving trails or elevating them above water level. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Bunn says the city doesn't want to rebuild its trails every year, so they've started looking at other options including moving the paths, raising them to a higher elevation hardening the shore.

"It means maybe the trails don't look the way they do right now," she explained. "Maybe that area that's being destroyed, does that become a wetland and you put the pathway up higher around it? I don't know what it's going to look like."