Low water affecting homeowners

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The personal toll lower lake levels is having on individual property owners and business owners came to light at a meeting in Owen Sound on Thursday.

Close to 100 people, the vast majority of them living or owning property on the Georgian Bay shoreline, showed up at a public meeting held by Georgian Bay mayors at the Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre on Thursday.

For David Kurt, who lives at Presqu'ile Point in Georgian Bluffs, the lower lake levels are something that are hitting him directly in the pocketbook. If levels go much lower he is going to have to invest $30,000 to $50,000 on a new well.

"I have thick shale rock and I probably have 200 feet of it to go through, so you need special equipment to bust it all," said Kurt. "I am just biding my time now hoping the water comes up."

Kurt said he put a harbour in in 1995 along with his well, which cost him "mega-thousands" then. Now he is looking at having to do some of the work again.

"I can't put my large boat in and I am thinking of selling it," said Kurt, who said there was less than a foot of water at his dock in February. "Before I couldn't stand in it. It was over six feet deep."

He said the water has come up about a foot since February, which has mean't he hasn't had to do any work yet.

"I got enough water if we kind of watch what we are doing, but I am hoping it goes up," said Kurt.

Thursday's meeting was presented by a group of concerned mayors from around Georgian Bay.

The group has heard from 44 Georgian Bay communities, 76 businesses and 72 marinas affected. The annual economic cost is estimated at $20 million, according to a casebook created by mayors from communities around Georgian Bay.

Other effects locally include private docks that have been left high and dry and levels so low that the Chi-Cheemaun was unable to start its season on time because the water was so low at Tobermory and South Baymouth that docking was deemed unsafe. The service has since resumed and modifications are to be made to the docks should the water levels continue to decline. Other concerns include the reduction in shoreline property values, which could lead to the reduction of tax base, private property owners having to extend water lines or deepen wells, legal costs associated with negotiating changing shoreline ownership rights and impacts on the tourism economy and First Nations communities around Georgian Bay. The estimated cost to cottagers for dock work and to repair water systems has been pegged at $500 million, while the negative impact on the local economy has been estimated to be in the $50 million to $100 million per year range, according to the group's casebook.

Midland Mayor Gord McKay, who led Thursday's presentations along with Blue Mountains mayor Ellen Anderson, said there are short-term and long-term impacts associated with the low water levels.

"When you walk out on your dock each day, if you run a marina, you say, can I run my business today and if your docks are high and dry obviously there is no business that day and it is an immediate impact," McKay said. "If my property is affected and I want to sell it maybe in 10 years time, it may not be an immediate concern, but I know if that water never comes back I have lost a tremendous amount of money."

The mayors have been lobbying the provincial and federal governments for some financial assistance in the neighbourhood of $10 million each. McKay said they have received "warm words" from the governments, but no commitment yet.

Thursday's meeting turned into a bit of a rallying call to residents and businesses affected to also become more involved in lobbying the governments to provide assistance to help deal with the low water levels.

"They are part of the solution," said McKay. "Our politicians look out to the people and eventually they understand the message that is being delivered by those who live around Georgian Bay and they have to know they are concerned about their water and they want some help with this problem."

Owen Sound Mayor Deb Haswell, who was moderating Thursday's session, said hearing from the people affected was important for the mayors.

"We wanted to hear the real-life stories with real people that are experiencing the hardships that are largely economic," said Haswell. "We weren't here with answers tonight. We were here to listen and let people know we are on it and we are talking to other levels of government to see if there is any other kind of relief program that can be provided."

Owen Sound's concerns about low water levels include the need by ships to reduce loads in order to enter the harbour. The city has also been pressuring the federal government about the need to dredge the harbour channel.

"For the mayor of Georgian Bluffs, the mayor of Blue Mountains and right up the peninsula, the concerns are more far reaching in terms of their economy, than for Owen Sound," said Haswell. "Recognizing that, we do have a harbour that needs to be dredged and the low lake levels, combined with the silting in, do create more pressure on the need for dredging. That is something I am following closely."

Dick Hibma, a former member of a public liaison group which advised people studying the lower water levels of the Upper Great Lakes and chairman of the Grey Sauble Conservation Authority board of directors also made a presentation at Thursday's meeting outlining details of the work being done by the International Joint Commission and the International Upper Great Lakes Study.

The IJC in April made a recommendation that government's on both sides of the border consider installing sills in the St. Clair River, which was dredged in the 1960s, to reduce outflows. It has estimated slowing the flows could increase lake levels by 13 to 25 centimetres.

Hibma told of how scouring of the St. Clair River, changing weather patterns and glacial isostatic adjustment have all been labelled as possible reasons for the lowering of the lakes. But he added that climate change is likely to have a huge impact on lake levels in the future.

"Climate change has emerged as a critical and uncertain factor," Hibma said. "When you have cold wind blowing over open water you get evaporation like we have never seen before."

He suggested that the communities of southern Georgian Bay should band together and reach out to the IJC to be considered for a pilot project that will help find a solution for the lower lake levels.



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