Drone footage shows extent of flooding in Ontario cottage country as further rain looms
Environment Canada issues rainfall warning, between 20 and 35 mm of rain expected
Officials are warning communities in Ontario's cottage country that more devastating flooding could be on the way Wednesday as thousands of residents are "fighting a pretty tough battle" to save their homes.
Environment Canada issued a rainfall warning for the Muskoka Region on Tuesday, saying localized flooding in low-lying areas is possible. The alert covers Bracebridge and Huntsville, part of which are already under water as a result of surging lakes and rivers.
Between 20 and 35 millimetres of rain could fall by Thursday morning, and that's in addition to a marginal amount of snow and ice pellets expected due to plummeting temperatures.
The ground, already saturated following days of heavy rains, has limited ability to absorb more water, the federal agency cautioned.
Water levels along rivers and lakes in Bracebridge have already climbed beyond heights seen during 2013 — the last time the community was hit by significant flooding that submerged numerous roads and properties.
Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith predicts the number of houses and seasonal properties inundated by the floods will "easily exceed" those in 2013.
During that time, about 1,092 permanent residences and some 1,020 seasonal properties were affected. Smith could not provide specific figures for the current flooding, but did say they're waiting for aerial support to catalogue the damage.
Worst believed to be over
Flows in the Muskoka River strengthened over the weekend, threatening homes and cottages along its banks.
The rapid rise of floodwaters, however, had started to subside Monday in the north branch of the Muskoka River, authorities said. Dry weather over the last few days offered a chance for conditions to stabilize somewhat.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Smith called the slowing of the water a relief, saying he believes the worst of the washout is over but water levels remain extremely high.
"It's expected right now that any amount of rain will raise Lake Muskoka a marginal amount, but because outflows are matching inflows at this point ... hopefully the impacts will be marginal," he said on Tuesday.
The north branch of the Muskoka River flows through the downtown core before it meets the south branch and drains into Lake Muskoka.
The rapid rise of water in the south branch and lake has crested. But water upstream filtering down along the bloated river is still causing headaches for nearby residents. Homes in this area have suffered the most, Smith said.
Flood conditions are expected to linger until the end of the week, he continued.
"We are hoping that we don't see as much rain as is forecast."
4 communities under state of emergency
Bracebridge is one of several cottage country communities that have declared an emergency over the last week due to record-breaking flood conditions. The others include Huntsville, Minden Hills and Muskoka Lakes.
A group of reservists with the Canadian Armed Forces fanned out across Bracebridge on Sunday afternoon to fill and distribute sandbags, and help authorities traverse across water-laden roads that are currently impassable to most passenger vehicles.
Currently, some 100 troops are doing flood mitigation work in the town's hardest-hit areas that sit adjacent to the Muskoka River. Another 60 military personnel are expected to arrive this afternoon.
Large swaths of the shoreline in the Beaumont Drive area, where the river funnels into the lake, have begun to disappear from erosion, Smith explained.
"We probably won't have a full scope of the changes that Mother Nature has decided to make in the river until the waters recede."
Authorities have amassed roughly 45,000 sandbags for vulnerable residents to use to barricade their properties likely to be affected by more flooding.
"There is a concern that the ground water might swell again and we're trying to get sandbag walls up in front of people's houses to protect them in the event that the water levels rise," Lt.-Col. Graham Walsh said on Tuesday.
Officials in the neighbouring township of Muskoka Lakes advised residents near the Moon River on Monday to evacuate their homes voluntarily.
Water levels in the Moon River have climbed 16 centimetres in the past 24 hours.
Poor watershed management to blame
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is responsible for controlling water levels in the lakes, and Muskoka Lakes Mayor Phil Harding blames poor management and negligence for allowing spring floodwaters to become dangerous.
"If the water levels are kept higher at times, the risk and chance of flooding is great," he said in an interview with CBC Radio's Ontario Morning.
The Muskoka Watershed Management Plan hasn't been updated since 2006 to reflect changing watershed conditions and climate change.
There have now been four major floods throughout the Muskoka Region since 2010.
After the devastating floods in 2013, Harding said communities in the area appealed to the province to revise the Muskoka River Water Management Plan.
"We identified some significant limitations within it and part of that is some physical choke points that water cannot move through the system fast enough," said Harding.
The previous Liberal government was slated to update the document in 2016, but instead extended the plan by five years.
Harding says he is looking to the Progressive Conservatives to "step up and really help" overhaul the region's flood management system.
Province cuts funding for flood programs
Ontario Natural Resources Minister John Yakabuski outlined measures the province has taken to combat spring flooding as a result of higher water levels. This included removing logs to improve water flow and drawing down lakes in the Muskoka Region.
"Every precaution was taken by officials," he told Ontario Morning.
"Once all the logs are removed there's nothing you can do to increase the rate of draw down. It's whatever nature will allow. You can only push down what the system below it will accept."
Since he took office in November, Yakabuski says he has not received any requests to review the Muskoka River Water Management Plan.
"It's wonderful to think that this could have been prevented, but Mother Nature has quite frankly thrown us a huge curve this year," he said. "Right now we're doing what we can to deal with the situation at hand."
Last week, Premier Doug Ford said climate change is among the reasons that much of the province is under water.
The Ford government recently slashed funding for Ontario flood management programs in half when it delivered its first budget.
The decision has drawn sharp criticism from several politicians and environmentalists.
Conservation Ontario, which represents the province's 36 conservation authorities, has said the impacts of the cuts will be felt immediately, particularly in smaller and more rural communities.
At Queen's Park on Monday, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner told reporters the move is short-sighted, when the province is experiencing stronger and more frequent flood events that are fuelled by climate change.
Meanwhile, Official Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath said she fears Ontario communities will increasingly face flooding problems as a result of the cuts. She said the conservation authorities will no longer have the tools to develop or keep up with climate change.
"You can't say that you agree that climate change exists and then take away flood management planning capacity for municipalities, and take away the 50 million tree plan, and take away the things that actually help us to mitigate the climate change results," she said on Monday.
"It makes no sense whatsoever... We're going from bad to worse when it comes to climate change."
The government is insisting the decision will not hamper flood management efforts because conservation authorities receive other sources of money. Yakabuski points out the province contributes less than 10 per cent to their overall funding structure.
With files from The Canadian Press