(March 31 9:30pm BRACEBRIDGE) It was a long and technical afternoon for members of Muskoka Councils, Emergency Services personnel, the Muskoka River Water Management Standing Advisory Committee and Muskoka Watershed Council on Monday in Bracecbridge at the second Muskoka Municipal Pre-freshet Information Session. Patricia Arney, Vice Chair of Standing Advisory Committee Muskoka River Water Management Plan (MRWMP), reports there were no ‘answers’ as to what Muskoka ‘will experience’ for the 2015 spring thaw, but there was a lot of valuable information shared to help make informed decisions about various scenarios going forward.
Special report by Patricia Arney, Vice Chair, Standing Advisory Committee Muskoka River Water Management Plan (MRWMP) and Past Chair, Muskoka Watershed Council. Featured photo shows a road partially flooded during flood event in 2013.
Weather and Water were the overarching themes of this second Muskoka Municipal Pre-freshet Information Session hosted by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) Parry Sound-Muskoka District in Bracebridge on Monday (March 30, 2015).
Second half of April predicted to be warm and wet
Weather: Geoff Coulson, Warning Preparedness Meteorologist for Environment Canada, assured all present that the Ontario Storm Prediction Centre has a duty forecaster available 24/7. He outlined the meaning of the Environment Canada messages from Special Weather Statements which simply reflect a range from ‘there seems to be something going on’ to a warning which signifies significant weather impacts are likely. All of the cautionary language reflects the state of forecasting science abilities. For temperature, the accuracy is within 3 degrees 95% of the time on day 1 and 60% on day 7 — but for precipitation, it is a work in progress. He did confirm that this was the second year of unusually high overall snowfall, so whatever the weather does over the next month will have a significant impact on the meltdown. April 3-10 are forecast to be cold but the second half of April may be warmer and wetter. Coulson has been a weatherman for many years and is used to being asked about the weather, even by folk who have just berated him for the inaccuracy of a recent forecast.
Despite our cold winter, and the coldest February since 1934, global climate change is ‘warming’ and more ‘extreme storms’ are possible.
For those keen to track the weather on an ongoing basis the https://ecalertme.weather.gc.ca/ and google.org/publicalerts are good references OR one may wish to become a Weather Watcher. More details are available at cocorahs.org/canada
Allan Douglas, Director, Ontario Centre for Climate Impacts and Adaptation Resources of Laurentian University reinforced Coulson’s message about global warming and he had some positive notes on potential provincial policy shifts coming out of Ontario’s Climate Change 2015 Discussion Paper, including a ‘carbon price tag’. Allan offered more data on ‘intense precipitation’ events and stressed the need for communities to implement not only ‘coping/reactive’ strategies in the face of these extreme weather events but also to work on ‘adaptation/proactive strategies to prepare the infrastructure for the changes. He referenced the ‘Guide for Assessment of Hydrological Effects of Climate Change’ sponsored by MNRF and the Ministry of Environment (MoE) in partnership with Credit Valley Conservation Authority in commenting on the potential impacts of climate change on the freshets, saying “a redistribution of precipitation seasonally could result in severely stressed summer low flow conditions and a much higher likelihood of winter flooding.”
One of his ‘take home messages’ was the need for ‘best science, partnerships and communication’. He commended the 2010 Muskoka Watershed Council paper on climate change and noted MWC as a valuable partner.
Water: Dave MacPherson, MNRF Engineering Technologist, presented highly technical information with a light touch — who knew Big Eddy is ‘Large Edward’ to his friends? (Big Eddy and Ragged Rapids are the two sites on the Moon Musquash and Moon Rivers below the Moon Chutes). He also provided historical background about the 1988 Flood Damage Reduction program which undertook careful mapping of 207 locations in Ontario, one of them being Muskoka — and the data is still used today. When questioned on why MNRF has to rely on 25-year-old data, MacPherson said he had no problem as the mapping was based on Muskoka granite and he doubted there were alot of changes in that in 25 years. He also noted that since then, many structures have been allowed to be built on ‘potential flood plains’.
The most important message was that the Muskoka River water control structures were designed for navigation and tourism (they still function quite well for that purpose as before the dams, Lake Muskoka fluctuated up to 9 feet), not as Flood Control structures.
His presentation included a diagram of the actuality that ‘taking all the logs out to prevent flooding’ when the lake is in full drawdown doesn’t work.
He emphasized that drawing the winter levels ‘as low as they can go’ could have severe environmental impacts as well as opposition from those who live on the ‘reservoirs/lakes’. There was also a diagram to highlight the difference between a flood control structure and Muskoka dams: the full range of our dams is 1.5m vs a flood control structure with a range of 20m and there are no structures built around the ‘reservoir/lake’ of the flood control structure.
Additional drawdown on Lake Muskoka; all eyes on Algonquin melt
Amanda Vincent, MNRF Senior Technical Specialist, is the one ‘on the ground’ or water if one prefers. She also stressed that the water control structures on the Muskoka River system were built in the late 1800s to early 1900s for navigation purposes, not flood control. Since Muskoka does not have a conservation authority, it is the responsibility of MNRF to “initiate flood warning messages and local interpretation of the flood risk.” Vincent outlined the multitude of data sources, including field studies of snowpack, reviewed in the decision making around dam management, of taking logs in and out. She reported that this year there has been an additional drawdown on Lake Muskoka to cope with the higher water content in the snow. Presently the dams are being set for optimal discharge during the freshet but all eyes are on the Algonquin highlands and how that melt proceeds.
Craig Charlton is the Surface Water Analyst with the Surface Water Monitoring Centre (SWMC), the primary role of which is to monitor and forecast flooding and drought hazards across the province. Their work is to collect, monitor and analyze water flows and levels, complete daily Hazard Identification and Risk Assessments and communicate the results with their partners. They also offer 24/7 service for MNRF and Conservation Authorities. SWMC responsibilities include gathering data from all weather sources, forecasts, climate stations, stream flow stations and snow stations. This data is fed into a computer database, the Water Information Systems Kisters Database, WISKI, which creates modeling of potential outcomes and flood forecasts. Charlton reiterated the ‘meaning of the messages’: Condition Statement = early notice potential, Watch = potential, Warning = imminent flooding.
Emergency planning responsibilities
Community Emergency Management Coordinator Terri Burton outlined the legislative requirements for municipalities in emergency planning. The District of Muskoka (DMM) undertakes the required HIRA, Hazard Identification and risk Assessment and Critical infrastructure Assessment, but it goes beyond the basic HIRA data requirements. DMM includes MPAC data, population data and statistics on seasonal population. It also factors in weather issues given seasonal roads, large tourist ships that may pose extra risks as do events in many of our towns constricted by waterways.
DMM manages and maintains a contract with ‘211 Community Connections’ (211ontario.ca) to maintain an Emergency Resources database which is available to all municipalities and emergency services. The role of Emergency Planning upon receiving a flood watch or warning is to notify appropriate municipal officials and departments, determine the appropriate response, and declare a Flood emergency if warranted, request provincial assistance if required, and maintain a liaison with MNRF. They are also responsible for training at all levels from individual to community exercises.
Track and learn from what happens in your own back yard, advises Fire Chief
Steve Hernen, Fire Chief, Huntsville Lake of Bays, brought Mike Vadjla, Fire Prevention Officer and C.E.M.C. to handle the technical aspects of his very worthwhile presentation. There was a strong message to all about what to do with all the information garnered from the session – take it home and apply it to your own backyard.
For many, there is no meaningful message to hear about cms (cubic metres per second), but if a town has studied what happens to its water levels and infrastructure when the cms reaches a critical point and can then communicate that to the residents, it has meaning. Huntsville knows that when the Williamsport gauge reading reaches 90cms, the Old North Road may begin to flood in approximately 14 hours. So, they not only have information that is meaningful for the residents but it also provides a lead time. Each community has to take the information about flows and restrictions applicable to their own situation and keep local records in order to provide meaningful reports. Although it seems unreasonable, people continue to demand the right to build on flood plains and to store valuables in basements or boathouses prone to flooding, so there needs to be more public education on those issues. This was a commendable presentation of ‘practical’ application of much of the information shared that afternoon.
Again, there were no answers to the specific question “What will the 2015 freshet be like?” But there was lots of information to help individuals with understanding the messaging, analyzing the potential for flooding from observations and research data, undertaking risk analysis for individual properties and communities, and appreciating the need for major infrastructure reviews and adaptation planning. Certainly one strong takeaway is that you have to do your homework in your own back yard to be prepared. It may take lots of time and effort to do, but in this writer’s opinion, it’s more effective than simply blaming MNRF for not being more specific about the impacts of increasing flows throughout the region.
Special report contributed by Patricia Arney, Vice Chair Standing Advisory Committee Muskoka River Water Management Plan and Past Chair Muskoka Watershed Council.