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Toronto Toronto area of Lake Ontario approaches flood levels seen in 2017

Toronto city staff are keeping a close eye on the shoreline, as Lake Ontario water levels approach the same heights that resulted in months-long closures on the city’s Islands two years ago.

The daily average water level was recorded Sunday at 75.86 metres, which is just 7 centimetres below what was observed in 2017, according to the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. At that time, as the water rose to 75.93 metres, the popular tourist spot became so flooded that it had to be closed for the bulk of its busy season.

With water levels expected to continue to rise over the next week and a half, a shoreline hazard warning remains in effect for a fourth week. Once the water levels peak, Rehana Rajabali, senior manager of flood risk management for the TRCA, says it will take several more weeks for the lake to recede to normal levels.

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“The chances we catch winds from wrong direction – and at this point any direction is a bad direction – any time we get strong winds, that also kind of turns up the lake. You can end up with waves or with storm surge,” Ms. Rajabali said.

To mitigate flooding, 24 industrial sump pumps and thousands of sandbag barriers have been installed along the Toronto Islands’ shores – efforts that were thwarted in some spots Thursday by heavy winds and choppy waves, causing significant flooding near some homes, most significantly on the north and west shores. On Saturday, after the city was hit with another 28 millimetres of rain during a thunderstorm, residents were again forced to reassess their defences.

A main source of the problem, Ms. Rajabali said, is the record inflow of water Lake Ontario is receiving from Lake Erie. The rain – which is forecast to continue on and off through Wednesday – doesn’t help. City Councillor Joe Cressy called it a “stressful time for Island residents, businesses and city staff.”

“For the next seven to 10 days, based on changing wind and wave patterns, there are going to be moments that are scary,” he said. “But because of the measures we have put in place, we know we’ll be able to handle them.”

Before 2017, the previous time water levels reached such heights was 1973, Ms. Rajabali said.

Millions of dollars have been allocated to repair and strengthen flood-mitigation infrastructure on the Islands and along the waterfront. Much of that work is already under way, including the pumps and sandbags, as well as the installation of aqua dams and upgrades to the ferry dock infrastructure. In addition to these short-term solutions, Mr. Cressy also said that the city “will look to invest in long-term climate-change mitigation measures.”

A city-commissioned report exploring some of those potential long-term solutions is scheduled to be presented to the TRCA board in June. From there, Mr. Cressy expects recommendations will go to the city.

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“What were once hundred-year storms have become annual events. An annual sandbag effort is not the solution,” he said. “And this is not unique to the Islands. It’s happening right across our city just as it’s happening in Bracebridge, Ottawa and Montreal.”

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