Support local news? Donate to Niagara Now.Support local news? Donate to Niagara Now.
The Weather Network
Nov. 20, 2019 | Wednesday
Local News
Falling Into The Lake: A comprehensive look at Niagara's eroding shoreline
A tree slides into Lake Ontario off the banks of Niagara Shores Park in 2016. In 2019, the tree is nothing more than a dead stump in the water. (Richard Harley)

Producer: Richard Harley  Research & reporting: Denise Ascenzo, Dariya Baiguzhiyeva, Brittany Carter, Richard Harley, Kevin MacLean and Jill Troyer

Special thanks to: Chris Allen, Susan Des Islets, Bruce and Patricia Ferguson, Dave and Laura Glasz, John Glasz, Niagara Historical Society & Museum, Parks Canada staff, Alan Plut, Liz Purves and Megan Hiebert of Bird Studies Canada, Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System, Skyview Arts Inc. (Rene Bertschi)

Dedicated to the memories of Douglas Steele and Jacquelyn Allcock, for all the cherished times at Happy Land.

 

Watch the documentary here

 

Part 1
"The lake just keeps consuming."

 

Since 1950, Niagara Shores Park — once called Happy Land, and later, simply, the Conservation Area — has lost about 90 metres of shoreline.

Breathtaking photos and exclusive aerial video shot from a drone flying high above Lake Ontario this spring and summer show how the pounding, high lake water in 2017 and 2019 has taken a major toll on several kilometres of shoreline as well as the park, which is owned by Parks Canada.

This year alone, the secluded public park, located just west of Old Town and near the new Niagara Region sewage treatment plant, has lost large chunks of its lakeside embankment and numerous trees have fallen into the lake. 

NOTL resident Chris Allen first alerted The Lake Report to the latest erosion, after viewing the devastation by canoe from about 20 feet offshore in early summer.

All along the shore for about three kilometres, from Shakespeare Avenue to Four Mile Point, Allen reported "extensive erosion and more fresh trees down.” One possibly 200-year-old oak, he says, was a few feet from falling into the lake, and there is “no hope of saving it."

The Lake Report's editor, Richard Harley, having grown up frequenting the park, also has observed its collapse over the years. However, rather than rushing to publish a few photographs of the devastation, we decided to launch a much more in-depth investigation and it became a summer-long project.

The park has about 580 metres of shoreline, 330 metres of which is naturally eroding, according to Parks Canada.

Parks Canada spokesperson Rae Kingdon says because the erosion "does not present a risk to cultural or natural resources, nor does it threaten any infrastructure," there are no plans to try to limit the damage.

In an interview for The Lake Report's documentary video, Parks Canada's asset manager for southwestern Ontario, Brendan Buggeln, spoke with reporter Dariya Baiguzhiyeva about some of the reasons why the park has been left to erode.

Erosion is a natural process, and not all of it is bad, says Buggeln. In the case of Niagara Shores Park, erosion is necessary for a colony of nesting bank swallows, which burrow into the steep cliff faces. The endangered birds need near-vertical cliffs in order to nest and as the shoreline at the park erodes, it provides that habitat.

"We determined that any erosion mitigation we could do there would threaten the habitat of the species at risk," says Buggeln.

Letting erosion take place also means a beach will remain, he says. Mitigating the damage with rock walls would eliminate any beach and destroy the habitat of the bank swallow.

Some Niagara-on-the-Lake residents, like Alan Plut, are concerned about the loss of beachfront in town due to shoreline protection at places like the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club and Ball's Beach. But even Plut thinks Niagara Shores Park should be protected, as the land is eroding at an alarming rate.

Standing near the edge of the park's cliffs today, he recalls when the park extended much farther out.

"I remember as a kid, it seemed like the tree line was it was a lot further back from the edge of the cliff. But it's going fast," says Plut, as he surveys the damage and exposed roots of fallen trees.

"These roots, they've been completely washed off by the lake, the tree is half exposed — It's about to topple in at any moment."

Plut says in his lifetime, he's watched about 40 to 50 yards of land fall into the lake.

"The lake just keeps consuming."

Buggeln says there are methods of that can protect a shoreline, while still preserving a beach, such as beach rejuvenation and offshore breakwalls.

With Lake Ontario water levels at record highs this year, the steep bank is eroding faster, he says. As the waves crash into it, large chunks fall away.

"If you happen to be down there, (the water) is like a steam shovel taking chunks of the earth down," says lakefront land owner Bruce Ferguson, who has seen extensive erosion damage on his family property over his lifetime.

Niagara Shores Park is losing about 1.1 metres of shoreline per year, Parks Canada says, but, as Kingdon notes, no mitigation measures are planned. Given that Parks Canada opted to protect the bank swallow habitat by leaving the site as-is, no detailed costing was developed for the other options, says Kingdon.

As the lake swallows the shoreline, local residents and longtime visitors to Niagara Shores Park have started to take notice.

The impactful sight has left some residents stunned by the overall damage and the lack of preventive measures to fix them.

Scott Maxwell, of Niagara Falls, has been hiking along the Niagara Shores path since he was young. He says the changes he's seen occurring at the park are “astounding.”

“When I was a kid in the '60s, this would go out 250, 300 feet. There used to be the army huts here and officer’s barracks,” he says of the area next to the path along Niagara Shores Park. The path has since grown over and the beach isn’t as sandy, or accessible, as he remembers it.

Cindy Maxwell, who joins him for walks along the path, notes “devastating changes” and erosion along the way. She says some parts of the beach have become virtually inaccessible in just a year.

“Last year we used to walk here, down to the beach – you can’t get to that place now,” she says.

She thinks it’s a shame the beach isn’t being maintained at all.

“Back in the '70s the water came up 10, 15 feet. All this used to be a sandbar, it was wide open into the lake,” Maxwell says. He also notes that where the area once allowed for painted turtles to nest along the sandbanks, the high-water levels and erosion damage have put an end to that.

“Painted turtles used to nest here, and hatch and I haven’t seen one for a long time,” he says.

Beth Turner has lived in NOTL for several months and has been walking the path since she moved to town. She says even over the last few months, she’s noticed drastic changes to the shoreline and the park.

“Oh, we’ve definitely noticed a change in the erosion over that time. We’ve seen new trees down into ground. It’s really sad,” she says.

“I think it’s terrible because it’s really changing the whole way the entire park looks, losing the beautiful trees, and it doesn’t feel safe anymore.”

She says if she had young children, she wouldn’t allow them to walk near the edge, commenting on how easily the trees have fallen in and how dangerous the path is becoming.

In other parts of Niagara, Parks Canada has done extensive shoreline protection to mitigate damage to cultural assets, while others like Ferguson are left to deal with erosion at their own expense, and have questions — and theories — about why lake levels have been so high in previous years.

 

Watch the documentary here

Part 2
"It's a threatened species in Canada."

 

 

Just off the steep cliff faces of Niagara Shores Park, at almost all hours during spring, summer and fall, a captivating aerobatics show is on display.

A colony of small birds dances its way to a fresh meal for its young fledglings, which nest metres away in the soft sand and clay of the park's embankment.

The birds, appropriately, are called bank swallows, and build their burrows into sandy vertical faces along lakes and rivers.

The story of the bank swallow might not have a happy ending, though — as Ontario has lost more than 90 per cent of its bank swallow population since 1972, thanks to shoreline protection and lakefront development. They are one of Ontario’s most threatened bird species.

The Lake Report spoke with Bird Studies Canada experts Liz Purves and Megan Hiebert to find out a bit more about the birds and why the populations are in decline, and to see if it is related to eroding shorelines.

Purves and Hiebert spend their summers doing hands-on research with bank swallows along the coast of Lake Erie.

They literally count bank swallow burrows as part of their research and are acknowledged experts on the birds — which are often confused with other types of swallows, like barn swallows and cliffside swallows.

Bank swallows are aerial insectivores, which means they eat insects while in flight.

The spectacle is fascinating to watch, as the tiny birds swoop through the sky, performing aerial tricks as they hunt. But this means they need to nest in places where food is abundant. Lakes and riverbeds provide ideal habitats, with plenty of insects hovering above the water.

The birds come all the way from South America to spend the summer in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Tagged birds have been recaptured and documented as far away as Peru.

Many Niagara residents are concerned the erosion is destroying the habitat for the birds, but, in fact, the opposite is true, experts say. Near-vertical cliffs are crucial to the bank swallows' habitat and nesting, but those steep embankments are only formed via erosion. Building a breakwater barrier near their nesting area could destroy their habitat.

On the other hand, erosion can be deadly to the birds and their habitats, if it occurs aggressively at the wrong time of the year.

"Erosion is tricky because it has to happen at the right time for bank swallows," says Hiebert. "It has to happen before they start laying eggs, before they get into nest building, and definitely before they have babies. If it happens when they have babies, well, that kind of sucks."

"I can't say for sure it's because of high water levels, but it kind of looks that way," she says.

"You could see places where there had been recent erosion, and it probably just wiped out a whole ton of nests, which is unfortunate."

Bank swallows are finicky, in that all tests so far have shown they won't use artificial nests, or nest in an artificial environment. They want sandy, soft banks, close to the water. And there isn't much that can substitute for that. Near the water, bugs are flying, and food is prevalent.

"The artificial habitiats that I've heard of haven't worked out spectacularly," says Hiebert. "I know that they have been trying different mixes of sand and stuff, to try and entice the bank swallows to go in it, and they just wouldn't use it. They prefer a pile of dirt."

As crashing waves continue to erode Niagara’s shoreline by an average of one metre per year, the challenge of preserving coastal land comes face-to-face with preservation efforts for the bank swallow.

Niagara Shores Park is home to a significant population of the tiny, migratory bird that makes its burrows in embankments along lakefronts and riverbeds.

Amid growing concerns about the preservation of bank swallow habitat in Niagara-on-the-Lake, The Lake Report spoke at length with Purves and Hiebert about the life cycle of the birds and the causes leading to the decline of the species in the province.

With populations having dropped more than 92 per cent in Ontario since 1970, combined with the ongoing loss of shoreline, there is a sense of urgency in finding out the best ways to protect the swallows, while preserving coastal land.

Purves and Hiebert, who are researching bank swallow populations and patterns in Ontario, say the birds will only nest on cliffs like those in Niagara Shores.

Part of the problem is that without shoreline erosion, which creates steep banks, the birds wouldn’t have places to burrow. As more and more shoreline protection occurs along the Great Lakes, it stops the natural creation of the birds’ habitat.

Steep banks are critical, say Purves and Hiebert. The angle prevents grass and plants from growing in the side of the cliff. If the grass were to grow, the birds, which use their tiny beaks to build their burrows, wouldn’t be able to make their nests. Though they’re powerful enough to dig holes up to one metre into the soft sand, they aren’t able to burrow into thick roots.

The steep angle also helps the birds keep out of the way of natural predators, like racoons and skunks, which are prevalent in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

In the case of the bank swallow population, finding a way to prevent eroding shoreline, while preserving natural bank swallow habitat, is crucial to the success of preservation.

Researchers have tried to create artificial habitats for the birds, but they haven’t been successful.

“The birds don’t like it,” says Purves.

There is no specific guideline for how to repair a shoreline while mitigating damage to bank swallow habitat, Purves and Hiebert say.

And federal laws restrict the further destruction of bank swallow habitats, so without a functional plan for shoreline protection that also preserves swallow burrows, a solution seems unlikely.

Watch the documentary here

Part 3
'An entire cherry orchard is gone.'

 

Along the shores of Lake Ontario in Niagara, private landowners are having their own troubles with erosion.

Bruce Ferguson's family has lived in the McNab area west of Old Town for more than 100 years. In that time, he says the extensive erosion has caused him and neighbours concern.

He recalls stories of entire farm roads and orchards falling into the lake, houses being moved across the street to be saved, and of swimming on the remnants of structures that had been consumed long ago.

Once 300 acres, when his grandfather owned it, Ferguson's property has passed hands from his father to him, and been sectioned into about 1.5 acres of land for Ferguson and his wife Patricia to build a home.

"Being on the lake over the years we've had our share of erosion," Ferguson says. “Over that time, we’ve lost, well we lost a cherry orchard, and then the 100 feet we’ve lost since I’ve owned it."

The erosion has caused enough concern for him to look into historical maps of the land, which show a devastating loss of land.

He says he had the land surveyed in 2003 when he was planning on building a house on the property.

“They made up the deeds in 1969, we had it resurveyed in 2003, when we were planning on building. I knew we were losing property to erosion. I had him write down in his survey what it is now, compared to what the deed says,” he says.

The comparison revealed he had lost more than 100 feet off the east side of his property, and more than 60 off the west in 34 years.

"To put that into perspective, our house is set back 110 feet from the edge of the bank. That is about what we've lost off the end of the property," Ferguson says, as he contemplates the land that has vanished. "In my lifetime, this was actually dirt and sod and trees and grass."

After an interview for our documentary, we asked Ferguson to take us to his house to show us the extent of the erosion for ourselves. What we saw was that since 1970, he has lost almost half of the land between his back porch and the lake.

To Ferguson, erosion is nothing new — it's just gotten worse with the high lake levels in 2017 and 2019. And he, like others along the lakefront, are wondering why.

Ferguson says the working theory is that it's due to the changes made in lake level inputs and outputs by the International Joint Commission, which controls lake flow for Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and the Ottawa basin to Quebec.

For private land owners, whether it's important to them or not, shoreline protection still comes with a hefty cost.

Ferguson received estimates for protection or preservation of about $1,000 per foot. That price tag "sort of adds up," says Ferguson, who has 150 feet of beachfront property in the McNab area, about eight kilometres west of Niagara-on-the-Lake's Old Town district.

Currently there is no federal or municipal funding available for people who want to protect their property, or reclaim lost land.

“It’s unfortunate what we’ve been seeing is there’s no preventive money as such for land owners, it’s more remediation works,” says Brett Ruck, manager of environmental services for the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“When you’re looking at remediation, you’ve already sustained the damage so you’ve got to be able to protect yourself ahead of time if you think that threat is there for your property.”

As far as compensation for loss of land, Ferguson says he, too, is unaware of any money that's available.

"I really don't know if there is a recourse in Ontario for losses that you've incurred due to erosion."

The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake has had to contend with erosion problems and has completed its own shoreline protection along the mouth of the Niagara River at Ball’s Beach Park, Nelson Park and River Beach Park.

At Ball’s Beach, a groyne — a pile of rocks to protect the shore — has been put in place to stop waves crashing, but the rocks still have to be turned and placed properly to be fully effective.

The town needs the water level to fall and approval from the Ministry of the Environment before more work can be done on the groyne.

Niagara-on-the-Lake Lord Mayor Betty Disero says there are provincial guidelines that have to be followed and that as soon as the lake levels are down, the province "should allow" the town to finish the shoreline protection.

“We’re losing land, we’re losing trees and we have to stop it before we start to lose one of our parks so the shoreline protection project is very, very important," Disero says.

Ferguson admits, he could take the initiative to do shoreline protection on his own, but that for him, preserving beach access is more important. Some other NOTL residents, like Dave Glasz, agree, and wish the town would act to open up public beach access.

"I'm willing to tolerate a bit of erosion to preserve a beachfront," says Ferguson. "I go down there with my grandkids, and the turtles lay their eggs on the beach, and we think it's sort of neat."

Watch the documentary here

Part 4
"It's a national historic site."

 

Across the Great Lakes, scenes like the one above are becoming more and more frequent. In an attempt to save land from being claimed by powerful bodies of water, rocks and boulders are used to limit wave damage and prevent erosion.

Along the coast of the Fort Mississauga National Historic Site and the historic Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club, Parks Canada has spent $4.9 million in federal infrastructure money to restore and protect 600 metres of shoreline.

The work was started in 2018 and was completed this summer, one year ahead of schedule, an accomplishment that Parks Canada asset manager Brendan Buggeln says the agency is proud of.

With a new record lake level in 2019, the erosion could have taken a further toll on the golf course — the oldest in North America.

"We prevented more possible erosion," says Buggeln.

The area, whose beachfront was swallowed by the lake many years ago, was becoming a hazard for golfers and most of the trees were dying. Parks Canada removed around 200 trees, and plans to plant another 300, he says.

The type of protection done along that part of the Lake Ontario shore is a called a breakwater. Large boulders are built up several feet high to ensure that powerful waves hit the rocks and "break" before they can crash on the bank or shoreline.

Other types of shoreline protection include offshore breakwalls, beach nourishment or installing stone groynes. Parks Canada owns the golf course land and leases it to the NOTL Golf Club, and the agency determined the best plan was a breakwater with a gravel road for trucks to get in and out with boulders.

Buggeln says different types of protection are appropriate for different areas.

"At Fort Mississauga we decided action was necessary for public safety, for the visitor experience, for the cultural resources, and for the infrastructure that was there."

"Fort Mississauga is a fascinating national historic site. It was developed just after the War of 1812, in response to the loss of Fort George, and wanting to protect against Fort Niagara and control the mouth of the Niagara River ... and was an active military site right through the end World War Two."

"There's lots or buried artifacts, lots of in situ (on-site) artifacts, and so we were worried about losing those to erosion, and losing the fort proper. So all of these things put together, we thought it was important to act to protect this site for future Canadians to come and see it."

When it became evident to Parks Canada that high lake levels would increase shoreline erosion even more, the agency hired a consultant to explore shoreline protection solutions at both Fort Mississauga and Niagara Shores Park. At Niagara Shores, they determined shoreline protection wasn't appropriate, largely due to an active population of threatened bank swallows.

At Niagara Shores, Buggeln says the agency was "less concerned with cultural heritage," when compared to Fort Mississauga — which was an active military site for many years and contains buried artifacts.

"It's a national historic site. It's nationally significant in Canada."

Buggeln says erosion is just a part of life.

"Erosion is a natural process. If lakeshore and rivers were left to themselves, there would be places that would be eroding, and places that would be building up with the sediment in the water. Over time, as many shorelines get hardened, there are fewer and fewer sources of sediment for the water, so places ... where sediment would be settling and depositing, those are becoming fewer."

Looking to the future of Niagara Shores Park, with North America's oldest golf course and one of Canada's national historic sites now protected, Buggeln says it's "hard to say" what could change to make Parks Canada reverse its decision not to protect the land at Niagara Shores.

The bank, which had no beach left, was threatened to collapse, and most of the trees were damaged or dying, says Buggeln.

Kingdon says the breakwall is "helping to protect Fort Mississauga and the historic artifacts along the lakeshore property, while at the same time ensuring public safety."

The agency "is continuing to monitor any public safety concerns at Niagara Shores Park and, to date, have excluded vehicles to help mitigate the risk," she says.

"Shoreline erosion is a long-term, ongoing natural process, with rates of erosion varying each year due to lake levels and weather events. Erosion rates are generally increased in high water years, like this year and 2017."

Kingdon says many people have expressed interest in having a pedestrian walkway included along the rebuilt waterfront. However, at the moment, Parks Canada has no plans for one but might assess the viability of a walkway in the future.

 

Watch the documentary here

Part 5
"I wouldn't be happy to know it's manmade."

 

 

The last few years have been worse than others for shoreline erosion, as is evident by numerous photos of fallen trees, sand and clay.

When searching for the cause of the increased decay, everything points to high lake levels in 2017 and 2019.

Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Bruce Ferguson, who owns a home on a portion of his late grandfather's property, believes it is largely due to a change in the way the water is let out of Lake Ontario.

In 2017, the International Joint Commission changed the way it lets water flow into the St. Lawrence River.

Ferguson doesn't think the date is entirely coincidental.

"I think everyone is saying, 'Well, it's not the fault of the International Joint Commission, it was just bad luck that they changed the regulations, and then they had this tremendously wet year.' "

"There's got to be some co-relation to what the changes are with the International Joint Commission, and the way they're controlling the lake. A lot of people said – including a lot of people in the state of New York, who have been very vocal about this – that the IJC should have released more water out of the lake sooner. When everything gets flooded, then they can't, because they'll flood down stream. The province of Quebec and the Ottawa River is already full."

Experts say the high lake level is a result of increased precipitation, amplified by the effects of climate change.

"I think climate change and everything is being blamed for all this, but I can tell you, this is nothing new," says Ferguson.

Bird Studies Canada officials wouldn't comment on "rumours" but say high lake levels this year, seem to have had a negative impact on bank swallows, with erosion happening at the worst possible times for the birds' nesting cycle.

As of late August, water levels in both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie are dropping steadily, but they’re still significantly above average.

“All Great Lakes had record (levels) this year, and Lake Erie and Lake Ontario had all-time record highs since our first reliable data was recorded in 1918,” says Frank Seglenieks, a water resources engineer with Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Lake Ontario peaked at an all-time high of 75.92 metres on June 15. Since then, there’s been a drop of 43 cm, to 75.49 metres, which is still 55 cm above average.

"Even by the end of the year, the levels will still be above average," says Seglenieks. 

This comes on the heels of high water levels in 2017, which reached 75.88 metres, and caused major erosion problems and tree loss along the shoreline in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“Impacts this year include loss of beach at Lakeside Park in Port Dalhousie, the carousel there was closed for much of the season, and marinas had to scramble to build floating docks,” says Steve Miller, senior manager of water resources for the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. 

The spike in water levels was “caused by a very wet winter and above average precipitation into spring,” Seglenieks explains. Data from Environment and Climate Change Canada, a federal government agency, backs that up, showing very high rainfall rates in the spring months. 

May of this year saw 130.2 mm of rainfall in the Vineland area, much higher than the average of 75.6 mm. Welland saw 97.2 mm versus the average of 84.7 mm in the same month.

In June and July, when the water level in Lake Ontario started to stabilize and drop, Vineland had dryer weather, with just 58.5 mm of precipitation compared to the average of 85.1 mm. Welland also saw significantly less rain in July, with 49 mm versus the average of 85 mm.

Lake Ontario is affected by local rainfall, but also by the flow of water from Lake Erie, over Niagara Falls and down the Niagara River.

There are no controls on the inflow of water into Lake Ontario from Lake Erie, a fact that Rob Caldwell, Canadian secretary of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, emphasizes with a quote from Gordon Lightfoot's epic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”  – “Lake Ontario takes in what Lake Erie can send her.” 

Once the water level is up, there’s no simple solution to bring it down. 

“The only spot we can manage is controlling outflows at the Moses-Saunders Power Dam  in Cornwall. It’s the only way we can influence water levels of Lake Ontario,” says Caldwell.

But any water released from Lake Ontario goes into the St. Lawrence River. “Operators have a balancing act to plan, because letting too much water out would flood Montreal, and affect freighter navigation. Not enough water let out and Lake Ontario rises,” Miller explains. 

Further exacerbating the situation this spring was the heavy rain and flooding in the Ottawa River basin, affecting eastern Ontario and Quebec. “That limited how much they could release from Lake Ontario,” he adds.

The St. Lawrence River board started releasing water at the dam in June and it has continued for more than two months, the longest period ever, surpassing the 55 days of outflow in 2017. 

Since June 13, the dam has had “outflow at a steady rate of 10,400 cubic metres per second. That was slightly reduced on Aug. 21, to 10,110 cubic metres per second – to keep currents in the St. Lawrence River safe,” says Seglenieks.

“Outflow from the dam results in stronger currents in the St. Lawrence, which can pose a danger to all users, whether swimmers, boaters, divers or ships,” he says.

The current is 50 per cent stronger in some places in the St. Lawrence this summer.

Caldwell shares a story from a cottager in the Thousand Islands area, who reported that when he jumps in the water off his dock, the current normally takes him downstream about 80 feet in 60 seconds, and he is able to swim back.

When he jumped in the first time this summer, the current took him 120 feet in 60 seconds, and he couldn’t swim back. His son came out in a boat to rescue him, and then "cleaved the dock off the shore trying to dock in the strong current."

Water levels, while falling, will be above average right through the fall, according to Miller.

While we “haven’t seen big storm events so far,” the next threat is the chance that “a storm from the northeast could blow in, typically late October into November, that’s a critical time for storms and shoreline damage, erosion, and flooding,” he warns. And if the storm surge comes from Kingston toward our shores it could cause serious damage.

The effect of going into the next season with above average levels “is dependent on snow pack and rainfall,” says Miller. 

“If we get a harsh winter with prolonged ice cover and high snowfall, we’ll see high water levels again. If we have a mild winter with low precipitation, we’ll get some relief,” predicts Mike McKay, executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor.

Longer term, while “it’s a natural phenomenon for water levels to fluctuate, extreme variation might be the new normal,” says McKay, adding there’s “a link to climate change as one of the factors.”  

Other experts are of similar opinion. “With climate change, will we see more frequent and more intense flooding? Yes and yes, we just don’t know how much,” says Caldwell.

“In terms of predictions, there’s no general trend, but we can expect more extremes, of both high and low water levels. It’s hard to say when you’re in the middle of it ... we’ll see more extremes, they will happen more often, but I wouldn’t want to put a number on it,” says Seglenieks.

He points out that 2012 saw record low water levels on Lake Huron and Michigan, and now in 2019 record highs in Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, so “both highs and lows fit into the scenarios in the model we’re seeing.”

Going forward, “It’s important to be adaptable, and plan for such extremes when designing infrastructure, for example, docks that can handle both high and low water levels,” Seglenieks emphasizes. 

Over at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, “every day we look at water levels and weather forecasts to assess the threat, and we issue flood warnings if conditions warrant,” Miller says.

He adds that “we’re implementing an app you can download onto your phone, which will reach individuals with warnings. It’s called Alertable. It currently pulls information and warnings from Environment Canada, but we will tailor the information we provide to our local area and conditions.”

Miller says the app will roll out early October.

Watch the documentary here

Part 6
"Shore it up and leave it alone."

 

Residents, Parks Canada officials and the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake all have ideas about what is the best way to protect shoreline properties along Lake Ontario.

Some people think aggressive shoreline measures using large stones is the solution, while others argue preserving beach access is more important.

In some areas, shoreline protection threatens natural wildlife and animals that make their homes on the banks and cliffs.

Residents like Alan Plut think areas like Niagara Shores Park, which has lost more than 90 metres of shoreline over the last 70 years (an average of more than one metre a year), should be protected using measures like stone barriers, to preserve what's left of the quickly eroding property.

"Shore up the banks and leave it alone," says Plut. "At least stop the lake from claiming the land ... then we'd still have a park."

He says he would like to see the area cleaned up, so walkers wouldn't have to worry about ticks, though he is cautious about losing the land to tourism, and would prefer to see it kept as a spot for locals. Others, like private land owner Bruce Ferguson, have left their properties to erode to preserve a beachfront.

Some residents living near Ryerson Park in Old Town, where the embankment was protected in 1997, say they miss having a beach.

"What's Niagara-on-the-Lake if you're not on the lake — if you don't have access to the lake?" says Dave Glasz, who has spent his summers in NOTL since he was a child.

His parents bought a house with a tree growing through it, which he now owns, and the tree is still there; nature poking its head into life isn't strange to him. He'd prefer to see the erosion, if it means having a place to lay down a towel.

Parks Canada did not have cost estimates done on different types of shoreline protection at Niagara Shores, after deciding to let it erode.

"Erosion is a natural process," says Parks Canada asset manager Brendan Buggeln. "If lakeshores and rivers were left to themselves, there would be places that would be eroding, and places that would be building up with the sediment in the water."

"There are a number of different things you can do, including allowing shoreline to erode where appropriate."

Parks Canada this summer completed shoreline protection along the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club up to Fort Mississauga, a national historic site. It cost almost $5 million and was finished in about 18 months, ahead of schedule.

Buggeln says the solution isn't always cut and dry, and that different protection methods are appropriate for different areas. At Niagara Shores Park, shoreline protection would devastate the bank swallow population, he says.


"I don't want to speak on behalf of Parks Canada of all the different things that other people should be doing, because different methods of shore protection are valid in different areas," says Buggeln.

"I'd say that everything is a balance. We're always balancing different things. In this case we know that there is concern about the changing landscape, and some of trees, but then that has to be balance with the bank swallows, the species at risk, who require this habitat. There's less and less of this habitat available naturally. It's important to maintain the small pieces that do still exist on the lakeshore."

Bank swallow field researcher Liz Purves, of Bird Studies Canada, says she'd like to see bank swallows "kept in the conversation."

"Before they start putting up these barriers to erosion, or damming up waterways and decreasing waterflow, which decreases erosion, I'd like them to just be aware that there are these birds around, that do require that erosion."

Looking toward the future she'd like to see guidelines established for government bodies and developers, outlining methods of shoreline protection that can mitigate damage to bank swallow populations. No such recommendations exist currently.

She says more funding for Bird Studies Canada would help in efforts to create a plan and permit further research on artificial habitats for bank swallows.

"I think what frustrates a lot of people that aren't government, aren't municipalities is: no one is going to allow me, us to do that. What would happen if I started building my property out a mile into the lake? I'm sure someone is going to stop me — going to tell me I can't do that."

Dave and John Glasz say they'd like to see beachfront access at the rifle range property.

"If they could put a big rock barrier along the lake ... similar to what they've done at the golf course, it would make the water accessible to the community at large. It would be a nice edition.

"And there's a lot of property there," adds Dave Glasz. "There could be a lot of beachfront."

"Where the rifle range was, it's a large open land. It could be a lot of things, and one of them could be access to the beach. Which is what I remember. Which is what I enjoy. It's one of the reasons we're living here in the summer, 'cause my parents loved it as well."

"I would imagine to get the equipment in here to shore this up, you're talking big money," says Plut.

Watch the documentary here.

f4033d7793009a4053c4497d8eccc3d53dc2dca8:f3b26ac4b4afe3f66e6edbd72929abcc23aa338f