Climate Change Makes Record-High Great Lakes Water Levels the ‘Evolving Normal’
Climate change is a “deciding factor” in this summer’s record high water levels on the Great Lakes, CTV News reported earlier this month, citing climate adaptation specialist Blair Feltmate of the University of Waterloo.
“The flooding this spring and summer along the northern shores of Lake Ontario, the Toronto Islands, and some Toronto-area beaches has been particularly troublesome for homeowners and businesses,” CTV states. “According to government statistics, July water levels for the bodies of water between Canada and the U.S. were at record highs. And this can lead to faster erosion of the coastline and flooding.”
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Feltmate, head of UW’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, cited climate change as one of two factors “disproportionately” affecting Great Lakes water levels. “Number one is climate change-induced. We’re getting more water coming down over shorter periods of time more frequently,” he told CTV. The other factor is that “we’ve removed 72 to 73% of the natural infrastructure of forest fields and wetlands, which gives water a place to go when it falls.” So “now, when the big storms hit, the water goes very quickly into the Great Lakes.”
In July, CBC reported on Great Lakes communities where people suspect a new water management plan, in which the International Joint Commission raised maximum water levels on the Lakes by six centimetres, as the cause of flooding that is devastating small businesses and summer residences. “It’s a bit funny that as soon as this plan was implemented, the water started staying higher for longer,” said Julian Ganton, owner of Toronto Island SUP, a small business that rents stand-up paddleboards. In Lake Ontario, “people’s homes are being destroyed, shorelines are being destroyed, businesses are being impacted.”
In the Thousand Islands area, Andress Boat Works owner Wendy Merkley said business owners are coping with problems related to high water levels for the second time in three years. “When we had flooding in 2017, everybody said it was a once-in-a-century flood,” she told CBC. “And two years later we’re dealing with it again.”
IJC Canadian Co-Chair Pierre Béland said the new IJC strategy, Plan 2014, was not to blame—but nor did he attribute any of the impact to climate change. “It’s nature,” he said. “It’s an act of god, all that rain and all that snow that happened over a period of three years. There is nothing that can be done about that.”
Feltmate disputed both interpretations, telling CTV the new levels of flooding are not the “new normal”, but rather the “evolving normal because climate change is here to stay. It’s not going anywhere.” Adaptations include replanting trees along shorelines, building diversion channels and cisterns in high-risk areas, raising window wells, and having backup pumps to keep buildings dry when grid electricity fails.