Unhappy with flood damages this spring, a group of Muskoka property owners has launched a class-action suit against the Ontario government, underlining long-held complaints by area residents about the way the province operates water-control structures in the region.
According to a statement of claim filed on Wednesday in Barrie at the Ontario Superior Court, the plaintiffs are seeking $900-million in damages, alleging the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources failed to adequately control the water levels of Lake Joseph, Lake Muskoka and Lake Rosseau.
Those lakes are part of the Muskoka River watershed, which flows from Algonquin Provincial Park to Georgian Bay and includes the towns of Huntsville, Bracebridge and Gravenhurst.
The MNR is responsible for 29 of the 42 dams within the Muskoka River watershed, operating them under the 2006 Muskoka River Water Management Plan.
"In early 2016 Ontario failed to follow the standards established by the plan ... Ontario's failure to draw down the water levels and or effectively manage the water levels resulted in abnormally high water levels and flood situations on the Muskoka Lakes in March and April 2016," the statement of claim says.
Under the water management plan, the province's responsibilities include managing the flows and levels in the watershed and ensuring that local waterpower industries meet the plan's requirements.
The Muskoka Lakes are known as one of Ontario's affluent cottage areas.
Local politicians say they have complained for years that the water management plan is outdated and cannot respond to floods that have grown worse because of increasingly erratic weather.
"The fluctuations on the watershed have been significantly more severe in the last four, five years than they have been in my entire lifetime, and I have spent 50 years on the Muskoka Lakes," Muskoka District councillor Phil Harding said in an interview.
"There's no question that we are experiencing climate change."
In 2013 and earlier this spring, severe flooding prompted the Township of Muskoka District to pass resolutions urging the MNR to review its water management plan.
Mr. Harding said waterfront residents were assured that the 2013 flood was a "hundred-year event."
This year's resolution noted that during the spring, Muskoka faced "water levels close to, if not exceeding, those seen during the 2013 'hundred-year flood,' which once again has caused significant uninsured damage to property."
Mr. Harding said the 2006 water management plan relied on obsolete data from the 1980s and 90s.
He said the plan was supposed to be updated in 2016. Instead, the township was told the plan could remain in place for another five years.
In a May 16 letter to the township, an MNR manager said the plan had been amended to extend its application to March 31, 2021, to provide time to prepare and review proposed changes.
A week later, the township received another letter, from Bill Mauro, who was minister of natural resources until June.
In the letter, Mr. Mauro said the ministry was limited in its ability to prevent flooding.
"Ministry dams were not built to be flood control structures and do not have the capacity to store or hold back flood waters," Mr. Mauro wrote.
The minister's letter also noted that his department had issued a flood warning on March 31.
"These messages are meant to remind, prepare and warn people who own homes or cottages within known flood-prone locations that they should always be prepared for the possibility of flooding," the letter said.
Mr. Harding said flood warnings are of little use for people like him who have boathouses. "I can't sandbag water," he said.
He said this past spring's floods occurred after an early melt followed by a cold spell created a destructive combination of high water, ice sheets and high wind.
A spokeswoman for the MNR expressed sympathy for people whose properties were damaged,, but said the problem was caused by weather out of the control of the ministry.
"This year the spring melt came earlier and faster than normal. Over 170 mm of precipitation fell over a very short period of time, combining with high winds and ice floes," Jolanta Kowalski said in a statement.
She added that MNR dams can mitigate the problem but cannot hold back all flood waters.
The class-action's proposed representative plaintiff is Peter Burgess, a Toronto resident who owns property in Port Carling, on the shoreline of Lake Rosseau.
The statement of claim said the rising waters damaged the walls and structural integrity of his two boathouses.
Mr. Harding said most owners' insurance policies exclude flood and ice damages.