Record high water levels on Lake Ontario have scuttled one of the region’s most popular waterfront events and has called into question the long-term feasibility of similar events in the future.
The Fairfield-Gutzeit Society, whose volunteers manage the Fairfield-Gutzeit House and Lafarge War of 1812 Discovery Centre in Bath, Ontario, have organized several historical waterfront events over the years, drawing tens of thousands of visitors to the area each time. The Society organized the Flight Of the Royal George reenactment in 2012, which drew 55,000 visitors to the area, and its Tall Ship Event in 2019, which drew approximately 38,000 people.
Unfortunately, due to unprecedented high water levels, the Society has been forced to cancel its upcoming Gunboat Event, which had been scheduled for July of 2020.
David Smith, one of the directors of the Fairfield-Gutzeit Society, says that in both 2017 and 2019, levels on the lake hit the 100-year water mark, causing flood damage to the heritage property and making it hazardous to use its docking area.
“We have an Ontario Heritage Trust property, a house built in 1796, and another building from 1806 that was floated over the ice and repurposed on the property,” says Smith. He says that the Society has spent about $600,000 repairing the property over the years, including in 2010, when a full restoration of the property was undertaken, and the building was raised up by over a metre.
“We sort of rolled our eyes but abided by the wishes of the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority and the various authorities (to raise the property). And sure enough, in 2017 with the government’s policy change in how they were going to manage the seaway, they put us under water.”
The high water levels caused flooding into the basement of the building, says Smith. “There are 4-6 inches of water in the basement. It ruined some things we had stored in the basement, due to mould growth.”
And, says Smith, with the docking area underwater, he is worried that algae growth has made it a slip and fall hazard, making it dangerous to use as a setting for the types of events held here in the past.
The flooding has also severely stretched the capacity of the completely volunteer-run organization. Smith says that while the volunteers are ardent and committed supporters, they are advancing in age and are unable to keep up with the growing demands put on them by the issues caused by the high water levels. “We had to bring in gravel into the basement so that we weren’t walking in water…and we put 1200 sandbags in place, and we don’t have the capacity to move them.”
Lake Ontario’s water levels are managed by International Lake Ontario-St Lawrence River Board (ILO-SLRB), which was established by the International Joint Commission (IJC) in 2016 to ensure the outflows from Lake Ontario met the requirements of the IJC’s Order to implement Plan 2014.
Despite protestations from many waterfront property owners and municipalities whose waterfronts have been severely impacted in recent years by the new requirements to slow outflows, the ILO-SLRB has said it will continue to implement Plan 2014 as it attempts to balance the interests of the many communities along the seaway, mitigation of soil erosion along waterfronts, and navigation of the waterways by the shipping industry and recreational water users.
“Lake Ontario experienced a record-high water level in 2017 of 75.88 meters or 248.95 feet. It then exceeded that just two years later in 2019, with a new record of 75.92 meters or 249.09 feet,” says the IJC in a statement addressing concerns about the implementation of Plan 2014. “The board has made every effort to provide relief from the extreme water event, by continuously adjusting outflows during the several months of historically high water supplies leading up to the spring of 2019, and in consideration of the impacts on various interests throughout the system.”
Smith says they need to see what “the new norm” is before making long-term plans. “We’re just a small organization…we’re trying to be optimistic that whatever federal government forms will pay attention to the issues along the Great Lakes. I understand that they can only allow so much (water) to go out, but they completely changed the way they managed the waterway, (and) it totally changed the game. It’s caused a domino effect all the way through the lakes.”
Smith is hopeful that, while they’ve been forced to cancel the upcoming event, it won’t mean a permanent end to historical waterfront reenactments in the village. But he says it will take some political will to make it happen. “We love bringing history alive in the village,” says Smith, “but until there’s some awareness it’s going to be really challenging.”