Toronto

Wasaga Beach businesses concerned high water levels eroding local economy

Parts of the beach in Wasaga Beach, Ont. have disappeared due to near record high water levels and an official says local business owners are concerned that fewer tourists are spending time and money in the town as a result.

Visitors 'kind of shocked' that beach has shrunk, says local chamber of commerce president

Beachfront in the town, located on the southern end of Georgian Bay, is divided into areas. High-water levels have cut Beach Areas 1 and 2 roughly in half, and rendered the beach non-existent in Beach Areas 3 and 4. (Philip Lee-Shanok/CBC)

Long stretches of a popular sandy beach in an Ontario town have dramatically narrowed due to near record high water levels and local businesses have become concerned.

Colleen Bannerman, president of the Wasaga Beach Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit organization with about 230 members, says businesses that provide overnight accommodation are particularly worried. Wasaga Beach, on the southern end of Georgian Bay, is northwest of Toronto.

According to Bannerman, high water levels have cut Beach Areas 1 and 2, the busiest areas, roughly in half and rendered the beach in Beach Areas 3 and 4 non-existent. The town divides its beach into six areas in all.  

And the situation seems to be getting worse as summer continues.

"The beach water levels are high, as everybody is noticing this year," Bannerman said. "The accommodation people say, yes, they are suffering. Their bookings are down and they've had cancellations."

Some businesses have complained to the chamber of commerce, but Bannerman said the low number of overnight bookings this year as compared to that of last year may be due in part to the cancellation of the rock music festival Roxodus.

She added that it is difficult to gauge the impact of the receding shoreline on the local economy and the chamber is monitoring the situation closely.

Colleen Bannerman, president of the Wasaga Beach Chamber of Commerce, says: 'The accommodation people say, yes, they are suffering. Their bookings are down and they've had cancellations.' (Philip Lee-Shanok/CBC)

Visitors, who often drop into the office of the chamber of commerce to ask for directions, are surprised when they finally reach the sand, Bannerman said.

Parking lots full, beach area still crowded

"Their big question is: 'Where is the beach?' And once they get down there, they say, 'Wow.' They are kind of shocked that the beach has been affected so much by the high water levels," she said.

"As far as the economic impact, it remains to be seen. But I think we're all concerned. The concern is that people are coming, seeing the water levels and are going home, or they have heard that the water levels are high and they're not being accommodated on the beach." 

But Bannerman said parking lots near Beach 1 have been full on weekdays and weekends in July, there has been plenty of foot traffic along the boardwalk and the beachfront that is left in Beach Area 1 has been crowded with visitors.  

"The beach looks like it's full, so people are coming. Obviously, it doesn't take as many to fill the beach when we have only half of the beach," she said.

The beach is smaller this year at Wasaga Beach, Ont. due to near record high water levels and an official says businesses are concerned about the impact on the local economy. (Ed Middleton/CBC)

On the July 20 and 21 weekend, organizers of the Not-So-Pro Volleyball Tournament moved the event from its original location to another area of the beach because of high water levels. Organizers also had to cancel some of the playoffs and send players home because the beach area was filling with water.

Wasaga Beach Mayor Nina Bifolchi said in a statement that the town is also monitoring the situation.

"This year we are seeing high water levels in Wasaga Beach," Bifolchi said recently. "That means a substantially smaller beachfront compared to past years. Still, people continue to visit and stake out their space on the sand. They continue to support our local businesses, too — shops, restaurants, and motels."

High water affecting provincial park operations

For Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, which manages the beachfront except for a section of Beach Areas 1 and 2 that is managed by the town, high water levels are affecting how the park conducts its daily operations. Georgian Bay is the northeastern arm of Lake Huron.

"With the elevated water levels, we have had to make many adjustments to how we maintain the beachfront park areas, how we remove garbage and how we actively patrol the beachfront," said Benjamin Dasti, assistant park superintendent for Wasaga Beach Provincial Park.

"There are no operational concerns, however. We have adjusted our beach maintenance and cleaning operations accordingly."

Dasti said water levels in Wasaga Beach have not been this high since the mid-1980s. He said high water levels have been noticed across the park's 14 kilometres of beachfront. He said the beach seems to be wider on the far western part of the beach, known as Beach Area 6, and eastern parts of the beach, known as Allenwood Beach.

"Each Beach Area has portions that can be accessed and enjoyed. Water levels are very much in flux and are constantly changing, sometimes on a daily basis," he said. "The beachfront is affected almost daily by wind and wave action so the amount of beachfront changes regularly."

Wasaga Beach Mayor Nina Bifolchi says the town is monitoring the situation. 'This year we are seeing high water levels in Wasaga Beach ... Still, people continue to visit and stake out their space on the sand. They continue to support our local businesses, too — shops, restaurants, and motels.' (Michael Nichols)

Cool spring didn't help, park official says

Dasti added that the number of visitors to the town may have dropped in part because of the cool, wet spring. For example, he said, on the July 1 long weekend, the weather was hot and dry in 2018, which attracts visitors, while the weather was much cooler in 2019.

"Wasaga Beach Provincial Park will continue to monitor and adjust how we operate the beach areas as a result of the elevated water levels in order to provide the best possible experience while visiting the park. We want to ensure that when visitors do come they still have a great opportunity to experience the park and Georgian Bay," Dasti said.

Dasti said park officials noticed high water levels once lake ice in Georgian Bay began to melt this year, but lake water levels have been rising slowly for the past few years.

According to a July 21 report from the Georgian Bay Association, water levels remain high across the Great Lakes.

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