Fight over water levels pits flooded communities against shipping industry

Residents who live on the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River are demanding more action to lower water levels as they brace once again for spring flooding.

Regulator blamed for increasing risk for another flood along Lake Ontario

Sarah Delicate, centre, helped organize a protest on Nov. 23, 2019, outside the International Joint Commission's Ottawa offices. She's with the grassroots group United Shoreline Ontario and owns flood-damaged property in Bowmanville, Ont. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Residents who live on the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River are demanding more action to lower water levels as they brace once again for spring flooding.

The water flows out of the Great Lakes along the river and through a system of dams south of Cornwall, Ont., that are controlled by the International Joint Commission (IJC).

This spring, for more than 70 days, summer residences and businesses on the waterfront suffered unprecedented flooding — two years after an earlier record-breaking flood in 2017. 

"We're asking the IJC to lower the levels," said Sarah Delicate, a founding member of a grassroots group called United Shoreline Ontario.

Delicate and some 100 other residents and business owners from the region came to Ottawa Saturday to protest in front of the IJC's offices. 

She said her home on the waterfront in Bowmanville, Ont., has suffered an estimated $80,000 in damages.

"If we don't get this water out of the system by end of December, we are certainly facing another catastrophic year of flooding next year."

The board in charge of waterflow through the Moses-Saunders Power Dam near Cornwall, Ont., says increasing flow rates will also speed up the current in the St. Lawrence River. (Ontario Power Generation)

IJC allows more water to flow

On Friday, the IJC gave the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board the ability to be more flexible with flow rates through June 2020. 

"The board is doing everything it can to release as much water as possible," said Sarah Lobrichon, public affairs advisor for the Canadian section of the IJC. 

She said Lake Ontario remains above record levels, and the IJC is already releasing incredibly high amounts of water through the Moses-Saunders Dam on the St. Lawrence Seaway at Cornwall. 

However, the dam is already close to its maximum safe limit for how much can be released. Lobrichon said.

Another consideration is marine traffic, which continues through to the end of December — but will have to halt earlier if the flow rates make the river too fast.

The forecast from the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board suggests a five per cent chance of serious flooding in 2020. (International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board Forecast)

Shipping industry pushes back

The Chamber of Marine Commerce warns an early shutdown could cost the Canadian and U.S. economies $250 million a week.

Chamber president Bruce Burrows called December a critical month, with a variety of goods traveling through the lake system and along the St. Lawrence, whether it's prairie grain from the port in Thunder Bay or steel from Hamilton.

Even deliveries of salt for winter clearing could be hampered with an early shutdown, he said.

Scenarios put forward by the board suggest that increasing flows through the dam may not have a significant effect on preventing floods, he added.

"I think the benefit for land owners for increasing water flows now is very limited," said Burrows. 

Nelson Gilbert says his marina in Brockville, Ont., has been in the family for five generations. The marina endured severe flooding in 2017 and 2019, and Gilbert says another flood could wipe them out. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

1 in 20 chance of another flood 

The board is still evaluating whether their handling of flows ahead of the 2019 flood may have had an impact in making the situation worse.

It's suggesting that spring weather and the snow melt will be the biggest factors determining whether there will be more flooding in 2020. According to the board, advance models suggest there's roughly five per cent risk of a serious flood next spring.

"This is not about climate change  This is about policy of a waterway that is managed by people." said Cindy Mitchell, one of the protestors who drove to Ottawa from her home in Darlington Lake.

Mitchell retired to her lakefront property in 2017, just before the flood hit. While it's been traumatic, she said she's determined to raise her voice and do all she can to protect her home.

Nelson Gilbert, whose family has owned a marina in Brockville for five generations, worries that another one could wipe the business out for good. 

"We're at risk of losing our century business next year because of what they're doing right now," he said. 

No disaster assistance

In addition to lowering the levels on Lake Ontario, the protesters who came out Saturday have two other main requests.

They want to see the strategy developed in 2014 for managing water flows rethought. They also want compensation for the two devastating floods in 2017 and 2019.

Residents along Lake Ontario were ineligible to apply for disaster recovery assistance from the province. No community along the lake declared a state of emergency, a prerequisite for residents to get that help.

The communities did not meet the criteria for applying, according to the province. 

"Not a single penny has come from the provincial government," said Delicate. "Nothing. There is not a single person here who has received any government support at all."


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