Flooding fears force Lake Erie cottagers to leave properties

Lake Erie cottagers Photo by Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority

On Friday, Feb. 28, the municipality of Chatham-Kent, Ont. declared a state of emergency over concerns of a dike breach on Lake Erie that affects cottagers. An engineer’s report contracted by the municipality revealed that there is between a 5 to 40 per cent chance that the dike, which protects 1,600 acres of farmland, could be breached. As a result, the municipality will be shutting down Erie Shore Drive, a road that runs along the top of the dike, while they make repairs.

Erie Shore Drive, however, services 120 cottages and homes built between the shoreline and the dike. Closing the road will shut off access to these properties. Residents were alerted to the road’s closure on Thursday, Feb. 27, and have been given until March 9 to evacuate. Currently, there is no date for when they will be allowed back.

“We were given one-hour notice before [the evacuation] hit the media on Thursday,” says Terra Cadeau, president of the Erie Shore Drive’s Property Owners Association. “There’s about 40 per cent that are year-round residents down there and many of these people have significant mortgages and no place to go.”

According to Cadeau, the dike, which was built on reclaimed land nearly 100 years ago, was developed under the Drainage Act. This means the municipality was obligated to maintain it, she says. “Over time, they stopped doing that, and, as a result, the property owners along the road have been left on their own to protect the shoreline.”

Flooding is common in the area. Cadeau’s cottage was hit during a storm in August, despite a $50,000 steel wall she built to protect her property. “My neighbour’s wall was compromised and it ended up taking my cottage out,” she says.

Breaching the dike, however, would take a catastrophic storm, Cadeau says. She doesn’t understand why the municipality has asked residents to evacuate now, considering the dike is no more a risk than it was several months ago.

The Property Owners Association has been working with the municipality for a year to try to find a solution to maintain the dike. Cadeau says their association proposed sharing the repairs and upkeep costs of the dike amongst stakeholders, including the property owners, Lake Erie cottagers, the farmers, the nearby town of Erieau, and the municipality.

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But with the results of the engineer’s report and the municipality declaring a state of emergency, this plan has evaporated, leaving property owners looking for a place to go and the municipality searching for a long-term solution.

“There is a material possibility of a breach,” says Darrin Canniff, mayor of Chatham-Kent. “The issue for the municipality is we need to fix it and fix it fast. The key reason is safety, safety, safety. We could lose lives if that thing goes.”

One of the municipality’s main concerns is the continuing rise of Lake Erie’s water levels. “What’s happened over time is the shoreline has eroded as the water levels have risen, and the dike is becoming unstable,” Canniff says. If the waters did breach the dike, the surrounding cottages and farmland would be flooded, and the town of Erieau would turn into an island.

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Canniff says that they will shut down Erie Shore Drive on March 9 and begin renovations to repair the dike, which should take a few weeks. Once the repairs have been made, the municipality will develop a long-term solution. The municipality does not have jurisdiction over Lake Erie, so any long-term plans will have to involve senior levels of government.

Currently, there is no relocation solution for residents forced to evacuate from Erie Shore Drive. The municipality has offered emergency shelter and members of the community are providing food and assistance moving, but many of the residents have been forced to book hotels or move in with relatives.

“It is terrible what’s happening out there,” Canniff says, “but it’s the only thing we can do.”

In response to the evacuation, Cadeau says the Property Owners Association has engaged legal counsel. “We’re quickly assessing our next steps,” she says, “to determine how best to protect us and our members.”

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