Communities big and small along the Great Lakes have faced numerous challenges posed by extremely high lake levels over the past several years. These conditions caused significant hardship for many whose livelihoods depend on the lakes. Some communities have made significant investments to adapt their shorelines to be more resilient against flooding and erosion.
Resilience is defined by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the ability of a community to "bounce back" after hazardous events such as hurricanes, coastal storms and flooding – rather than simply reacting to impacts. The IJC has focused for decades on the effect of high- and low-water events on the Great Lakes. Following then-record high water levels in the late 1980s, the Canadian and United States governments asked the IJC to look into solutions.
This led to a 1993 report, “Alleviating the Adverse Consequences of Fluctuating Water Levels in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Basin.” The IJC revisited the topic in recent years through its Great Lakes Adaptive Management Committee – that studies how outflows on the St. Marys, Niagara and St. Lawrence rivers can be best managed over time in the era of climate change – and its Great Lakes Water Quality Board, that published a resiliency report in 2019.
The IJC is not alone in this effort, as states, provinces, indigenous and local governments contend with how water levels change over time on the Great Lakes. This is the first article in a series that will explore and highlight how communities along the lakes use innovative solutions to adapt to the current period of high water levels.
Spotlight: Lake Erie and the Niagara River watershed
Lake Erie is the smallest of the Great Lakes in terms of volume, and has the most densely populated shoreline. Four states, one province and several major cities line its shores including Cleveland, Ohio, with a population of more than 2 million people. Lake-related activities including commercial shipping, recreational boating and tourism are major contributors to the regional economy. However, erosion has been a major problem for lakeside communities, resulting in large economic consequences.
Development of the shoreline as a result of the growth of many cities along the lake has led to increased vulnerability to erosion. According to a 2018 US Army Corps of Engineers National Shoreline Management Study on Lake Erie, nearly a quarter of the shoreline has been artificially hardened to protect coastal communities.
Often times, these structures can exacerbate erosion in nearby areas by interfering with the natural build-up of sediment that help protect beaches and bluffs from wave action. In its study, the Army Corps predicted that climate change will exacerbate the problem by increasing the rate of erosion in coming years. Storms in the Great Lakes region are expected to intensify, with water level fluctuations amplified and ice cover reduced, allowing for winter wave action to further chip away at the shoreline.
What are shoreline communities on Lake Erie and in the Niagara River region doing to combat impacts associated with high water and wave action eroding their shorelines?
Studying the Shoreline
The municipality of Chatham-Kent, Ontario, is located on the northwest shore of Lake Erie. The local government there is working on a major shoreline study to identify how climate change contributes to coastal damage and hazards that pose challenges to communities in the region.
The municipality features predominantly agricultural and automotive businesses, but also supports eco-tourism along its nearby beaches, provincial parks and conservation areas. As a result, preparing for instances of both high- and low-water levels will help safeguard Chatham-Kent into the future, according to local officials.
The study began in 2017 after high water levels caused flooding along the shoreline, and entails a 120 kilometer (about 74.5 mile) coastal vulnerability assessment that includes extensive community input, said Thomas Kelly, general manager of infrastructure and engineering services with the Chatham-Kent municipality.
A draft report developed in partnership with the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority, consultants from Zuzek Inc. and the University of Waterloo was released in April 2020 and provides detailed potential recommendations for various mitigation and adaptation projects. The report was presented to the Chatham-Kent Council on May 4.
Kelly said they designed the study to consider current high-water conditions and the impacts of erosion and flooding, along with how climate change will likely touch the region in decades to come. While there are about 10 recommendations being considered for the final report, Kelly said that moving at-risk roadways near the waterfront is a high-priority issue.
“Those roads are not even passable at this time,” Kelly said as of Aug. 20, adding that water from the lake has been running over the road surfaces. He noted that CDN$1 million has already been spent trying to protect Erie Shore Drive by shoring up an existing dike to keep waters off the road, but that this is not a long-term solution.
The report also notes the risks to Rondeau Bay due to the installation of a jetty in 1868 that has been protecting a nearby beach and allowing sandy sediment from the lake to come to rest there. This impacts a barrier beach in the bay, which is losing its own sediment and sand due to the jetty’s placement.
In all, Rondeau Bay’s barrier beach lost 650 meters (2,132 feet) since the jetty went in. Kelly said this exposes the bay and the communities along it to the full winds and waves of Lake Erie, with dangers to infrastructure, communities and the unique ecology of the bay. In other areas, structures may need to be raised or moved where protective dikes and other measures aren’t enough.
The study is an important step for the municipality to begin prioritizing the protection and remediation of high-risk areas in the face of current high water levels, Kelly said. It also will provide important lessons for other Lake Erie communities facing similar challenges.
An environmental assessment is underway to gather more data and set better price estimates, but the current report anticipates all the recommendations could cost more than CDN$131 million.
Since this is too much for the local municipality to fund, Kelly said there would likely have to be cost-sharing discussions between the provincial government, federal government, Chatham-Kent and shoreline property owners on how costs could best be split. Another key, he added, is ensuring that when water levels recede, these lessons and considerations are not put off, as they were after the high-water period in 1986-87.
Creating Living Shorelines
There are other examples of watershed communities that are already implementing innovative approaches to developing more resilient shorelines.
For instance, the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper’s Living Shorelines program in New York is helping restore a more natural transition from lake to land in hardened and vulnerable areas. The program focuses on restoring degraded shorelines throughout the Niagara River watershed to bolster the shoreline against erosion by absorbing and mitigating wave energy, floodwaters and storm surges. This approach of greening previously hard surfaces also has additional benefits: it improves water quality by filtering stormwater runoff, creates habitat that supports many fish and wildlife species, enhances public access and improves recreation opportunities such as kayaking.
The program has completed several projects, including a revitalization of Sandy Beach Park, located on the northern part of Grand Island on the Niagara River. There, Buffalo-Niagara Waterkeeper replaced sheet metal and concrete bulkhead that previously lined the shoreline with a gradual slope and added natural features, including boulders, rocks and logs to dissipate wave action causing erosion. The project also involved introducing native aquatic plant species to provide a natural buffer against wave action and develop a strong root system that will help combat erosion.
Another of the Living Shoreline projects is the revitalization of Stella Niagara Preserve, located near Lewiston along the lower Niagara River, in partnership with the New York Land Conservancy. The project revamped the 29-acre preserve’s shoreline by removing a mostly concrete shoreline and replacing it with natural debris and native plants. The revitalization of the area was intended to improve access for recreational activities and establish critical habitat for native species. According to Waterkeeper officials, the project improved access for paddlers, and waterfront access to the public as well as water quality and shoreline stability.
Understanding how shoreline erosion will be accelerated by climate change can help Lake Erie communities prioritize actions to mitigate future impacts.
Studies like the one in Chatham-Kent also have benefits for other communities on Lake Erie trying to develop shoreline resilience plans. The work done by groups like the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper to restore living shorelines is also critical to remediate much of the lake’s shoreline that has been hardened by coastal development.
Christina Chiasson is a policy analyst for the Canadian Section of the IJC in Ottawa, Ontario.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.