Muskoka’s Mayoral Word; Controlling the Uncontrollable - Phil Harding provides Muskoka flood update

Phil Harding

Five months ago we were under water – today our water levels across Muskoka are at all-time lows. 

Who is to blame? 

Mother Nature, Climate Change, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry? 

Where do we go from here?

The spring of 2019 saw three municipalities across Muskoka (Huntsville, Bracebridge and Muskoka Lakes) declare “states of emergency” do to flooding with hundreds of millions of dollars of damage. Most not covered by insurance or even Provincial Disaster Funding. 


What has been done and what is going to be done.

During the height of the flood, the Premier of Ontario Doug Ford visited the region a couple of times and committed to a thorough review and stated “we can do better”.  He quickly facilitated a meeting with key stakeholders and municipalities who were most effected along with various ministries (MNRF, Infrastructure and Finance). 

During the summer, the premier again met twice with various mayors of Muskoka and promised change.  In August, a new special flood advisor, Doug McNeil from Manitoba, was appointed to make recommendations to the province as to how to mitigate flood damage.  Early September, Mr. McNeil met with key stakeholders again and listened, without pre bias or interference from various Ministries.

The simple truth to Muskoka’s issue is the (MRWMP) Muskoka River Water Management Plan (that sets the lake levels across the 200 plus KM water shed in Muskoka) is broken and is in dire need of an update. 

This plan came into effect in 2006 but would have used trend and historical data from the 90’s or 80’s.  Not to mention this plan was a quick update to a plan originally put in place in the 40’s, then updated in the 60’s.  Clearly climate change was not evident in the 50’s or 60’s and the legacy of this plan is now our current MRWMP. 

The plan designed for logging, then updated for hydro production, does not address the environment or infrastructure protection.  And certainly doesn’t address our economy in Muskoka which is our seasonal tourism (cottagers) who’s property has now suffered significant floods and damages 3 of the past 7 years.

Please understand that the issue isn’t just “lowering the water levels.” It is far more complex than that, though it certainly is part of the problem.  As already stated, late summer and this fall, we have seen exceptionally low water levels, algae blooms and other environmental issues caused by drought like conditions over the past 3 months.

So what has to happen?

Firstly, water and water moving through the system is the best thing for our lake health.  When water becomes stagnant it causes issues with swim and boil water advisories becoming common place. This occurs (like this year) only when there is not enough water in the system or new water added (i.e. rain) and our lake health is threatened.  However, If the water is too high, we end up with significant property damage do to flooding as the water stays in the system too long. 

As noticed in the spring, when the system is full of water, it can only leave so fast. 

Consider the analogy of a bathtub – If you turn on the tap to full, you will over-flow the tub because the drain at the bottom is too small.  This in effect is what happened this spring.  Too much water entering the system, but they couldn’t get the water out fast enough.

We heard from the MNRF a number of times this spring that the dams were wide open – true, but when did they open is the real question and was there evidence over the winter to predict too much water in the system in the spring? 

My personal perspective is yes there was, MNRF however will state – “they were just following the plan”, this is true which brings me back to the broken MRWMP.

Because of physical restraints in the water shed, choke points in our lakes and rivers or capacity of some dams to spill water, the MNRF (who controls the water levels) is not able to react fast enough letting water out of the system before damage occurs.

So what can be done? 

Firstly, we need to identify those choke points in the water shed and find ways to speed up the water flow to adapt to climate change and rapidly fluctuating spring snow melts. 

Secondly, we need to start with lower lake levels during the winter months so when we get the rapid melts. Our lake levels are already at a lower level (across the system) to both absorb the water and then to minimize the impacts of the spring run off. 

And thirdly, and equally important, we need to find ways to “hold water back” in the upper parts of the system so that when needed, when drought occurs, we have water available to continue flushing the system, maintaining lake levels and thereby increasing the overall health of our lakes.

And what about spring 2020? 

As much as I would like to say the MNRF has it covered – I can’t.  No I am not sounding the alarm right now as I continue to wait for the special Flood Advisor’s report which will identify both short term and long term mitigation measures.  It is believed this report should be out mid November so still providing time throughout the winter to adjust water levels to reduce the potential for flooding. 

I am confident that with Mr. McNeil’s credentials, he will be able to point the province in the right direction, and hopefully this year, with a new government in power that can fix the problem that changes will be made.

Stay tuned – more to come when the Flood Advisors’ report is released.

Phil Harding


Township of Muskoka Lakes

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