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Lake Ontario the highest it’s been since 1993

Toronto Star logo Toronto Star 2017-05-01 Peter Goffin - Staff Reporter

Visitors to Toronto’s lakefront may have noticed a bit less beach this spring, and a lot more water.

Broad ponds have sprung up at Woodbine Beach, encroaching on volleyball courts and stranding Muskoka chairs.

Crews work to clean up flooding at Woodbine Beach. Water levels on Lake Ontario are the highest they have been since 1993. © Colin McConnell Crews work to clean up flooding at Woodbine Beach. Water levels on Lake Ontario are the highest they have been since 1993.

Overflow from marshland at Rouge National Urban Park in Scarborough has submerged parts of a walking path and parking lot.

Regulars at Cherry Beach have complained of high water levels eroding sand along the shore.

Lake Ontario is higher than it’s been since 1993, said Environment Canada water resources engineer Derrick Beach. In March and April Toronto’s lake has been about 32 cm above the average levels for this time of year.

But it’s nothing to worry about, experts say.

While water levels are up all across the Great Lakes, they are still far from breaking any records, Beach said.

“Lake levels go up and down over time ... We’re not looking at levels that couldn’t have been anticipated,” he added.

“From an ecological perspective this is a normal way that watersheds change and evolve,” said Matthew Cutler, spokesperson for the City of Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation department.

Crews have been out near Woodbine and Kew Beaches, bringing in stone and shifting sand from other parts of the beach to protect the boardwalk and Leuty Lifeguard station, said Cutler.

“There were two major storms that really brought water up onto the beach,” he added.

“Now that we’ve got the building and the boardwalk shored up, we’re working on expanding the beach back again to get a few more volleyball courts in there.”

Great Lakes levels depend on a number of factors, including how much water is flowing into, and out of the lakes, and how much is evaporating. But rising water levels are mainly driven by snow or rainfall, Beach said.

“There’s a whole balance ... but generally the main driver of water levels is precipitation.”

The International Joint Commission, an independent body created by Canada and the U.S. to protect shared waters, has said water levels will remain high throughout the spring, based on forecasts by government meteorologists on both sides of the border.

Lake Ontario could reach anywhere between 10 to 55 cm above average in May, the IJC said, but water levels in the Great Lakes are still not expected to eclipse records set in the 1950s and 1980s.

Levels on Lake Ontario should return to near-average later in the year, as precipitation drops, Beach said.

Nancy Gaffney, head of watershed programs for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, confirmed that Toronto’s shoreline has been hit with “a lot of flooding,” but said the water poses no threat of real damage.

“The high water levels are causing some issues with our recreation spaces but most of our waterfront has been built to withstand (fluctuating water levels),” Gaffney said.

“When we do our big shoreline projects like Bluffer’s Park or Humber Bay Park we try to build the shorelines to be resilient to the water levels, knowing that they can go up and down quite dramatically over a 10 to 20 year cycle.”

Municipalities and conservation authorities in Ontario regulate how close to the shore people can build permanent structures, Gaffney added.

“Most of the (building) we do in Ontario takes into account a wide range of water levels, so that we don’t have problems.”

People should still remain cautious around the lakes, Beach said.

“With higher water levels you’ll get wave action higher up on the shore when you get storms, so people need to be aware of that,” he said.

But high water levels are actually beneficial for natural ecosystems.

“It’s certainly a needed part of the whole process of the lakes,” said Beach.

“In higher water periods you’ll get a little more erosion that deposits the sand and gravel that ... create beaches. And then, as the water recedes, there’s those wet areas behind the beaches — the wetlands that are important for the ecosystem.”

The health of existing wetlands also benefits from a changeover in plant growth and new soil ushered in by high water, Beach said.

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