Cottagers seeing flood damage demand that more be done

Photo courtesy of Josh Pearcey

Kelly Fallis wasn’t anticipating that she’d be the unofficial documentarian of Lake Muskoka’s rising waters. But when the realtor, builder, and owner of RS Muskoka went out on the lake to check on some projects left over from the fall, she began snapping photos. And then she uploaded them to her web page. As a former cottager-turned-resident, she knew how frustrating it was to be unable to check on your property, and so she was trying to provide visual info and updates. Along with the photos, she included flood data she’d been collecting. Over about four days, her site logged close to 5,000 visits.

Photo courtesy of Wayne Barlow
Photo courtesy of Kelly Fallis

For Meredith Cartwright, a cottager, lawyer, and director of Water Alliance Muskoka, this year’s high water is just more evidence that the whole system is broken. “In the last five years we’ve had so-called anomalous flooding,” she says. “But it’s not anomalous. Because the province’s own scientific experts are saying that this is predictable flooding with climate change and there’s going to be more of it. They’re also predicting [summer] drought.” Water Alliance Muskoka has been working to get officials to take the threat seriously and put a plan in place.

On April 30, federal Minister of Transport Marc Garneau issued additional navigation restrictions to include Lake Muskoka, Moon River, and the north and south branches of Muskoka River. Anyone violating the restrictions is subject to fines.

Also on April 30, Scott Aitchison, the mayor of Huntsville, reported that water levels were beginning to recede. Aitchison, however, is clear-eyed about the challenges ahead. He says that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry had prepared as well as it could with the infrastructure it had but that “one of the most important things I’ve learned through all this is that these structures that were built, some of them 100 years ago along the watershed here, were designed and built to do something very different than manage flood waters.”

Consequently, says Cartwright, “we’re sitting ducks.” She says, “Enough is enough,” and is calling for “fair, appropriate water management in the face of climate change.”

“There’s no question that these flood events are happening more frequently, and I have no doubt that it’s in part as a result of climate change,” says Mayor Aitchison. “We can’t just keep ignoring it. We’re going to have to make some changes, we’re going to have to look very seriously at everything from official plans and zoning bylaws and building construction techniques.” Everything is on the table, he says, as he and his neighbouring mayors call on the provincial and federal governments to look forward. Closer to home, he’s asked his staff to look at capital projects with an eye to making them more resilient. “We have to take a close look at basically building for this next century, with far different climate realities.”

Cartwright is among many cottagers who want to know what all this means for right now. “We assume that our food is safe to eat, that our air is clean to breathe. What this story is about is having no assurance that our water is safe to swim in.” Others expressed similar concerns to Cottage Life. Mayor Aitchison offers assurance that he’ll be working with partners among the lakes, including lake associations, to make sure that testing is going on regularly, that the water is safe and, if there are concerns, to communicate that to the public.

In the meantime, Kelly Fallis is prepping cottagers for a potentially nasty surprise when they arrive at their cottages in the next few weeks. “I’m putting this out because I’ve been in cottagers’ shoes,” she says, “with not being there.” She’s heartened by the coming together of the community and the support she’s receiving online. “It shows, once again, how amazing and awesome a place Muskoka is.”

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