Visitors to the Craganmor Point Resort near Parry Sound, Ont., often come by boat to dine on the dockside patio restaurant that overlooks the picturesque waters of Georgian Bay.
But with water levels on the bay reaching record highs, resort staff have had to construct elevated walkways on the deck so clients can access the restaurant. The number of visitors making the trip to the island resort dropped sharply in the spring, and, this summer, those still keen to eat at the restaurant’s waterside patio have had to dine with their feet submerged in several inches of lake water.
Water levels are high across the Great Lakes, forcing tourism businesses to make significant expenditures to deal with the encroaching water. And while businesses are spending to keep operations as close to normal as possible, the high water is increasing costs and complicating the provision of services.
Natalie Overend, owner of Craganmor Point Resort, says the water, which is three to five feet above normal, is posing a serious threat to her business. She estimates she has spent $10,000 to $12,000 on materials to build walkways and the project has taken up considerable staff time. Spring revenue is down 50 per cent from last year. Ms. Overend blames reduced visits on the high water and heavy precipitation, but says visits are ticking up approaching the height of summer.
“We’re making the best of it,” Ms. Overend said. For the most part, despite the wet feet, her customers remain upbeat and unconcerned by the high water, viewing it as a novel experience.
Water levels on Lakes Superior, Erie and Ontario are at record highs so far in July, as they have been since May, eclipsing previous records set decades ago. Water levels in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are less than an inch below the record set in 1986. In practice, this means water is up three to five feet compared with lows in the past 10 years, although wind and local conditions mean there’s some variance.
The cause is increased precipitation and runoff from surrounding lakes and rivers, according to Harvey Shear, a Great Lakes specialist at the University of Toronto. These record highs come on the back of another year of high water in 2017, which was called a once-in-a-century phenomenon.
“Two years later, it was the exact same thing,” said Brett Christopher, the managing artistic director of the Thousand Islands Playhouse, a waterside theatre in Gananoque, Ont. “I’m hoping this is year one of the next hundred years, because it impacts our business.”
The Playhouse is a 350-seat theatre in a converted old boathouse in the Thousand Islands, where eastern Lake Ontario meets the Saint Lawrence River. The fixed dock, the main point of access for “Canada’s dockside theatre,” is currently under water, and the ramp to the facility’s floating dock is so perilous it’s been closed to customers.
Before and after shows, as well as during intermission, when customers would usually mingle on the fixed dock to enjoy refreshments amid the scenery, they are now all forced onto the upper deck, creating congestion issues. The submerged fixed dock also poses a risk to young patrons: the current run of Anne of Green Gables is seeing many families flock to the theatre, and Mr. Christopher says their front-line staff are spending half of their time guarding entrances to the submerged dock from wandering children.
Mr. Christopher says the business expects to spend between $50,000 to $100,000 to rebuild its fixed dock and address the damaged shoreline beneath the boathouse. The theatre is a not-for-profit, funded by ticket sales, government grants and donations. An expense like this threatens its operations.
Another nearby business, Gananoque Boat Line, has also been working to reduce the impact of high-water levels. Neil McCarney, the general manager of the tour boat company, says the business has spent around $135,000 since 2017 repairing docks, building ramps and redoing electrical connections close to the water.
The work this year required the business to halt operations for a day – a not-insignificant hit for a seasonal business. Mr. McCarney has also had to hire six additional staff this season to ensure that docking on the submerged and slippery dock continues safely.
Gananoque Boat Lines’ revenue hasn’t been hurt on the whole, though the company’s schedules have been thrown off. Boat wakes in the high waters pose a threat to the shoreline and waterfront properties, and new speed restrictions are making tour circuits longer to complete.
It’s uncertain what exactly is causing the increased precipitation feeding the lakes. With only two years of data for the abnormal highs since 2017, Dr. Shear says it’s too early to conclude that it’s caused by climate change, although that is a possibility. As it stands now, the water levels are currently going down, albeit very slowly, as precipitation has dropped.
What is certain is that it’s incredibly hard to control the water levels. Of the Great Lakes, only Superior and Ontario are regulated by dams. It’s not as simple as opening the gates of the Moses-Saunders Power Dam, near Cornwall, Ont., as that would flood Montreal downriver, Dr. Shear says. It’s a delicate balance that means somewhere will always be flooded if water levels are high.
As the businesses of the Great Lakes cope with these changes, they have to consider whether to dig deeper into their pockets for permanent alterations or just ride out the current high water, which may be an aberration.
“If this is going to be the norm, we’re going to have to incur a huge cost if we have to build new docks that are higher, and that could very well lead to a higher price to travel,” Gananoque Boat Line’s Mr. McCarney says. “It’s frightening for next year.”