Boaters looking for solutions as high water becomes a problem

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Property owners and businesses desperate for a solution to the problem of high water in the Great Lakes are taking a hard look at two river diversion projects north of Lake Superior.

The Ogoki River Diversion steers water away from James Bay into Lake Nipigon, which feeds into Lake Superior. A network of dams on the Nipigon River also diverts water into Lake Superior that would normally flow into James Bay.

The diversions were approved during the Second World War to improve hydro-electric generating capacity throughout the Great Lakes. The increased flow also raised water levels to the benefit of shipping.

The diversions are significant, Boating Ontario CEO Rick Layzell said March 5 in Port Dover, because they account for two per cent of the water that passes through Lake Superior.

“It doesn’t sound like much,” Layzell said at a Boating Ontario business meeting at the Lions Community Centre. “But look at the size of Lake Superior.”

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Lake Superior is often likened to an inland ocean. It is among the largest bodies of freshwater in the world. It is also the largest of the Great Lakes.

With an estimated volume of 12-million cubic metres, two per cent of Lake Superior amounts to 240,000 cubic metres. This compares with Lake Erie, which has an estimated volume, under normal conditions, of 480,000 cubic metres.

Layzell was speaking to 25 marine industry representatives. He was careful to temper expectations, emphasizing that there are no short-term solutions on the horizon.

Even something as logical as eliminating problematic diversions, Layzell said, is complicated. Indigenous communities depend on the status quo for fishing and their water needs. As well, eliminating the diversions would disrupt large, significant ecosystems.

Boating Ontario members want something done as soon as possible. Traffic is down at affected marinas, as are boat sales.

As well, lakeshore facilities struggle with docks and other fixed infrastructure that no longer corresponds with the water line. Meanwhile, violent windstorms churn up the water, causing extensive lakeshore damage and inland flooding.

Layzell says everyone should brace for more of the same in 2020.

“Do I think the water is coming again this year?” he said. “Yes, I do. Do I think it’s going to be worse than last year? Yes, I do. If you don’t prepare for that now, you’re opening yourself to a lot of trouble.”

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Angela Woodward, co-owner of Marina Shores in Long Point, is skeptical of reports that nothing can be done to lower Lake Erie.

She told the gathering that the late Sharon Hazen – as head of the North Shore Coalition — led a successful campaign in the 1980s to lower Lake Erie the last time it was at record levels.

“We need to get that information about how that was done because we need to do it again,” Woodward said. “She (Hazen) got it rolling and it got done, immediately. I don’t believe these answers that say nothing can be done.”

During a break, Woodward said high water is an existential threat to Long Point. If high water claims the 3.2-kilometre Long Point Causeway – the only road into the community – Woodward said “we’re done.”

“Yet we can’t get our voices heard over backyard chickens and arenas because we’re too small,” she said. “We need to come together on this. There’s an answer to this because there was an answer in the 1980s.

“What is in my best interests here is in the best interest of them (the cottagers) too. Everyone south of the Big Creek Bridge better come together.”

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