Muskoka Lakes Association wraps review of spring flood as fall waters climb

No surprises in report; MLA won’t pursue phase two of spring flood review; Muskoka Lakes Mayor roiling over high fall water flows; Lawyer filing class action ponders what MNR might be hiding

Posted Nov. 7, 10:15am: Fresh on the heels of new accusations by Muskoka Lakes Mayor Alice Murphy that the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) may be mismanaging the Muskoka watershed is this week’s release of the spring flood review from the Muskoka Lakes Association (MLA).

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Water flowing over boom below Ragged Rapids dam and generating station Nov. 6, 3.40pm. Water rushing from the Muskoka Lakes township side into Wahta Mohawk Territory.

The report focuses on the causes and consequences, along with the MNR’s handling, of the 100-year flood event in late April and early May. As a result, the MLA says it will push for a review of the Muskoka River Water Management Plan (MRWMP) and creation of a flood control manual.

The MLA review release comes when residents in low-lying areas of the Muskoka watershed are hoping they’ve seen the end of the rain that has spurred  concerns of possible fall flooding.

A letter to members from MLA President Mike Langdon states the study, conducted by engineering firm Baird & Associates, aimed to better understand the causes of the spring flooding, while determining if it might be possible to reduce the chances of similar future events. In the review, Baird makes these recommendations to improve Muskoka’s ability to weather similar floods:

  • Integration of flood forecasting and flood management as flood forecasting and flood operation are “beyond the current scope” of the Muskoka River Dam Operation Manual.  The manual itself notes that these issues could be the “subject of a future manual.”  MLA response:  The MLA will advocate for the development of an integrated forecasting and flood control operational management manual for the Muskoka Lakes system.
  • Investigation of structural changes to control structures: As currently constituted, much of the Muskoka Lakes system operates as “run of river” and is not actively controlled.  MLA response:  The MLA will advocate for a review of the Muskoka River Water Management Plan, with specific emphasis on the requirement for structural changes or enhancements to dams and control structures that could enhance upstream storage.

The MLA decision to call for a review of how Muskoka water is controlled is not surprising when viewed in a historic context. It won’t be the first review, and likely won’t be the last.

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Then and Now: Lake levels on Lake Muskoka at Beaumaris as of Nov. 7 are above 9.6m (up from beginning of October due to high rainfall) vs almost 10.2 at height of spring flood event

The 1940 Hackner-Holden Agreement established guidelines that included increasing spring flood response capability (i.e. drawdown of lakes), for example. It was reviewed and revised again in 1969. More recently, the MRWMP was approved in January 2006, and it’s due for a full official review again in 2016. Perhaps more surprising is the lack of any real new information about the spring flood resulting from the summary the MLA has provided from its commissioned review. The MLA does note that some information that might have helped a deeper review was withheld by the MNR due to the possibility of pending litigation (See lawyer Michael Anne’s MacDonald’s reaction later in this article).

Water management plan committee vice chair reacts

Responding to the MLA release, Patricia Arney, vice chair of the Standing Advisory Committee (SAC) for the MRWMP, says she found one statement in the review to be particularly astute. It reads:

“Conversely, analysis of this information may indicate that there simply isn’t enough storage in the system to handle that magnitude of event, given the constraints of homes, buildings, and other infrastructure constructed along the lake shorelines.”

Arney says that begs a few questions, such as where enough storage might be found, noting the Baird recommendations suggest an upstream location. She asks, “Where would the review suggest that upstream location be – Huntsville, or Algonquin Park?

Any input into future flood management, she continues, “must also recognize the needs of the plant and animal life that call the watershed home (along with the homes and buildings on the shorelines.).” As an example, she points to lake trout, saying their populations could be threatened if lakes were drawn-down much more than they are right now.

Improved forecasting a common goal

Arney adds that the MNR stated in its internal review that it’s considering additional opportunities and/or options to improve forecasting.” Improved forecasting is recommended in the MLA-commissioned review as well. Plus, she suggests municipalities should be reviewing planning documents to ensure better infrastructure for storm water management, road & bridge design, and for any future development on what are likely to be ‘new’ flood plains as these storm events increase.

Baird recommends MLA work with MNR and MLA to seek more info

The MLA will also ask the MNR to produce a detailed and transparent public report on the factors that led to the 2013 spring flooding as it believes waterfront property owners who bore the brunt of repair and reparation costs from the flood deserve a further accounting of the facts. The Baird review also recommends that the MLA “may wish to focus on working with MNR to further understand whether future modifications to the water management plan are warranted.”  (The lake association did have a board member on the Plan Advisory Committee until the water management plan was implemented in 2006.).

The MLA plans to report back to members on the results of the association’s advocacy efforts in the months ahead, but will not explore a phase two of the review based on the recommendations of Baird Associates. To read the results of the MLA-commissioned review (the summary letter is the entire report), click here to view the PDF document, Baird Flood Review Summary Letter .

Class action in process
While this may be the end of all expected flood reviews, a proposed class action suit resulting from flood damage remains on the horizon. Bracebridge lawyer Michael Anne MacDonald says she has over 284 potential claims and has had requests from many more property owners, including some on Lake Vernon in Huntsville, on the Moon River, and in Minden, but she is presently keeping it just to the areas for which she gave notice of possible action: that includes the South and North Muskoka Rivers, Indian River and Lake Muskoka.

MacDonald is suspicious of the reasons why the MNR would hold information back from the MLA as the Baird review has stated it did.

“The MLA sought the Report to ‘analyse data and provide commentary on the conditions that led to the flood’. The MNR would not release the information required to permit that to be done effectively,” says MacDonald. “The proposed Phase 1 of the MLA in commissioning the Report has been effectively thwarted by the failure to release the necessary information — for fear such information would be evidence of liability in civil proceedings. Sounds to me that they just proved my point. The water management practices must have contributed to the flooding or they would have no reason to not publicly disclose that information.”

Murphy questions water level control

As well, high water levels due to the rain Muskoka’s been getting have unleashed a flood of new complaints from Muskoka Lakes Mayor Alice Murphy. The Mayor was quite vocal in her disdain for the handling of the spring flood. Starting in late October, she again aired her grievances, charging the MNR was not meeting its responsibilities to the entire Muskoka watershed. On Twitter, she asked:

“Is Moon River not protected by @MNRcentral’s MRWMP? Unprecedented water levels–docks submergd. Removal of floaters difficult/dangerous #Why?”

She also questioned why water levels appeared normal on Lake Muskoka while higher on the river, stating:

“25mm of rain > Oct 2012, translates to < 1inch. BalaBay remains @ normal levels but Moon River up over a foot. #Flood2013again?”

In an interview with CTV News on November 2 (See Related Articles below this post to view the CTV News coverage), she noted that rain in the past week had pushed water levels higher, and said the MNR needs to take a different approach to how it draws water through the system. Murphy complained of too much water coming in “because all of the sluices are open at the Bala Falls and not comparably down river so the capacity is not sufficient.”

Some river residents say the Mayor is wrong.

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Looking up at water coming through Moon Chutes Oct. 29. The Chutes are a natural constriction for water and causes flows to back up in the Bala Reach

Moon River resident Mike Webb took pictures at Ragged Rapids on October 29 when he started hearing the ‘down river’ complaints.  He noted water was flowing through the Moon Chutes toward the dam as much as it possibly can given the natural funnel-like quality of that section of the river, and that the dam was fully open. He wrote a letter to Township Council telling it he was concerned about the reports he was hearing from the Mayor.

The reports are “not true” said Webb in the letter. “The dams below the Moon River Chutes are taking all the water that the Moon Chutes will let through.”

A trip to Ragged Rapids by Muskoka News Watch yesterday afternoon showed water coming through the Moon Chutes above the dam as fast as nature may allow. The waters were flowing swiftly at the Ragged Rapids bridge and water level marks on the rocks were at about the same level they were on October 29. Water coming out below the Ragged Rapids hydro plant was higher, with water flowing over top of the boom located there.

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Water rushing toward OPG plant Nov 6

The MNR and dam operators have been a target of the Mayor in the media who also complained during the spring freshette that logs were not being pulled from dams at correct times up and downstream, and the Township of Muskoka Lakes itself is still in a legal tiff with the MNR. The Township has appealed to the Superior Court of Ontario to overturn a decision by Divisional Court to not grant the Township the Judicial Review it was seeking. The legal action is in relation to Crown land at North Bala Falls – the same falls that are now leaving the Mayor’s dock built in August 2012 under water.

The Mayor’s dock is just below the Bala Falls and has been covered by the high water as has the Town dock on Moon River and docks of other residents.

Flood Watch, green energy, flood, Muskoka, Moon River, Bala, MNR, power, hydro power, high water, Bracebridge, Wahta
Just the top of the Mayor’s dock ladder can be seen in this photo. The dock is just below the Bala Falls dam. Other docks, including the Town dock on Moon River, are also under water.

Certainly, no one can downplay the problems high water levels cause for anyone in a low-lying or flood prone regions of the Muskoka watershed. And right below the falls can be a hard hit area. Just look at the docks below the falls — or the MNR public safety signs that are usually on dry land that were surrounded by water at the Bala Falls yesterday. Yet a Flood Watch is different than a Flood Warning (for definitions, see MNW Flood Watch article) and at least one cottager complained to MNW that they had become alarmed enough about reports of ‘imminent flooding’ that they were about to make a special trip up after shutting their cottage at Thanksgiving — only to find out from neighbors that water levels were nowhere near what they had been during the spring freshette.

Flood Watch issued due to high October rains; few takers on sandbag offer

Upon releasing a Flood ‘Warning’ briefly by mistake late Friday (November 1) and then replacing it with the lesser alarming ‘Flood Watch’, the Township offered sandbags to people in low places in Muskoka Lakes who may be suffering from the high water levels. Those in flood-prone areas know only too well how unusually high water at different times in the season can have a tough impact on their properties and belongings. As of three pm Saturday, only two families (including the Mayor’s family) had taken up the Township on the sandbag offer, according to workers Muskoka News Watch visited at the Glen Orchard site. Township staff confirmed yesterday that while sandbags were also available the next day until 4pm, there were no more takers. Certainly, cottagers and residents on Moon River who may not have secured belongings and removed docks may have difficulty with high waters from the unusual rainfall, and they could experience more grief as high water continues to move through the Muskoka water system. The rain just kept coming yesterday. As the MNR explains, that’s what a Flood “Watch” is for: to alert people they need to prepared for times when rivers and lakes are at higher than normal levels.

Parks Canada flood review of Trent-Severn

East of Muskoka, another flood review was commissioned by Parks Canada to look into the federal agency’s actions in flooding that affected lakes in Haliburton and the Township of Minden Hills. That third-party review of the Gull River sub-watershed was released November 1. It concluded that Parks Canada staff “performed their job to the best of their abilities” and their actions helped to avoid further flooding in downstream communities. Anyone interested in reading the Gull River Flood Review can click here to read the release and download the full report.

Additional Resources:

Highlights of the MLA review conducted by engineering firm Baird & Associates:

  • Gauge data on Lake Muskoka shows significant drawdown was taken in the 2-3 weeks before the storm event that caused the April flooding. Comparing data from the spring of 2012 to the spring of 2013, it appears the same drawdown efforts were taken in both years.
  • Despite the drawdown, lake levels show a peak stage in spring 2013 that was 0.6 meters greater than the peak stage in spring 2012.
  • The Town of Bracebridge’s 2013 Flood Area Mapping shows flooding was widespread in that community. This initial review did not identify any specific structure in the town as the root cause of the flooding.

What is the Muskoka River Water Management Plan? The Muskoka River Water Management Plan (MRWMP), implemented in 2006, takes an ecosystem-based approach to water management by considering the interests and concerns of all water users within the watershed.

To learn more about the Muskoka watershed, you can visit The Muskoka Watershed Council web site. The Council and The Friends of the Muskoka Watershed Council are also celebrating the Grand Opening of their new office today, November 7, and all are invited. 

Event Details:

Date: Thursday, November 7, 2013 Time: 3 to 5 pm (Ribbon cutting at 4 pm)
Where: 16 Robert J Boyer Lane, Bracebridge

Related Articles:

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2 thoughts on “Muskoka Lakes Association wraps review of spring flood as fall waters climb”

  1. Thanks MNW
    Great and comprehensive overage of a complex issue not as easily addressed as some may suggest by ‘opening the dams’ or ‘holding back dams’ as every action within this complex system has a reaction.

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