Extreme High Water Levels Will Make For a Very Different Summer

Singing Sands on Canada Day: Where’s the Beach??
By John Francis

Summer has finally come to the Bruce Peninsula but the shorelines are different. Water levels in Georgian Bay and Lake Huron are within a few centimetres of the all-time highs from 1986. This is having quite an impact on the beaches of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.
Dunks Bay Beach, Lion’s Head Beach, Sandy Beach and Sauble Beach are all dramatically reduced.
The National Park beach at Singing Sands on Dorcas Bay is gone. Underwater. In a lot of rocky shoreline areas, the previously walkable/sittable shoreline is completely flooded, with cedar boughs hanging over the water.
Historical patterns suggest that the water level may not drop appreciably until fall. This is going to change the “experience” for a lot of people, residents and tourists alike. It’s hard to guess how it will unfold.
But I’m guessing that Saturdays and Sundays at sandy beaches are going to be standing room only. It might be better to plan your beach visits for evenings and weekdays. Or September.
What alternatives do we offer to our guests and the visiting public in general? Boat tours are an obvious answer, along with boating, canoeing, kayaking and hiking the Bruce Trail. Garden tours and lighthouse tours are other possibilities (but remember that Cabot Head Lightstation is closed again this year).
But while the water is high, it might also be a good idea to take a close look at your shoreline, especially if you are on Lake Huron or Georgian Bay. The Comprehensive Zoning Bylaw update process is going to be coming back some time in the next couple of years, complete with the dreaded black line and red line.
For those who might have missed the black line/red line controversy, here is a quick explanation. The Province of Ontario mandates that no residential structures be located below the 100-year flood line on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay (“the black line”). Fifteen metres (horizontally) inland from the hundred-year flood line is an imaginary “red line”, below which mitigative measures must be considered for all residential structures.
The “black line” for Lake Huron is 177.6 metres above sea level. At the time of the Zoning Bylaw conflict, the water level had risen a bit recently, but had hovered around the Chart Datum level of 176.0 for much of the previous two decades, including the all time low — below 175.6m — in 2013.
Many people — particularly those whose experience was based entirely on the two decades when water levels hung near Chart Datum — felt that “the black line” was outrageously restrictive because the water would never get that high.
People who lived on the Peninsula in October of 1986, when water levels routinely exceeded the 100-year flood line, had no complaints about the black line. People who endured the 1952 storm uprush at Stokes Bay — it swamped the entire village and lifted houses off their foundations — had no concerns about the “wave uprush/red line” either.
Water levels have been hovering around 177.3m for nearly a month now, which is within a few cm of the record high for July. The 100-year flood line is only 30cm higher. Can you imagine a seiche 30cm above where the water is now? A storm surge of 30cm? That’s all it would take to get to the 100-year flood line. The black line doesn’t seem so extreme right now, does it?
Can you imagine an early winter storm causing wave spray to blow 40 or 50 metres inland and then freeze? How about a late winter storm pushing plates of ice a long way inland? That’s what the “red line” is about.
The lowest water level ever recorded for Lake Huron and Georgian Bay happened in January of 2013. We could easily set new record highs this year. It seems like a slam dunk that extreme weather events are going to get more frequent; the “hundred year events” may happen every few years.
With water levels fluctuating nearly two metres — think about that — in six years, perhaps the safety margins proposed in the (defeated) CZB weren’t such a bad idea.