Reprimands, gratitude and a promise to do better all part of public meeting about flooding

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An estimated 25 people attended a meeting held at the Algonquin Theatre on Wednesday to gather public input and answer questions about a flood event which seemed to take public officials completely by surprise.

Steve Hernen, Director of Operations and Protective Services for the Town, told those present that the only water meter available in the Huntsville system is the Williamsport Bridge gauge on the Big East River. He also noted that the water that comes through the Huntsville system from the highlands of Algonquin Park, through Kearney, and further downstream through Buck and Fox lakes flows under the downtown swing bridge, which acts as a dam.

He said when flows are high you can see a difference in the water levels from one side of the bridge to the other. “This year we were noticing at least a two-foot drop.” Hernen also noted that based on historical data, “whatever water gets under that bridge, the rest of the system can normally handle that water because there’s not a large enough opening to cause us additional problems.”

From the bridge, the water keeps flowing downstream to the Brunel Locks while picking up some flows from Pen and Fairy lakes, which also flow towards Lake of Bays (see link to map at bottom).

“Once the water normally gets past the town bridge, in a normal year, we’re good. We don’t run into problems, we don’t hear about problems. You’ll see lake elevation rise and lower but we don’t see the flooding that we’ve seen in some areas this year,” said Hernen, who displayed water flow charts from previous flood years.

He said flow rates at the Williamsport gauge during the last major flood in 2013 plateaued at 243 cubic metres per second and began to decrease. At the time, measurements could only go up to 200 cubic metres per second “because they never expected to see anything higher than 200. Since that time they’ve corrected their equipment.” Hernen said that typically when staff starts to see a flow rate above 70 cubic metres per second, they know there’ll be localized flooding in places like Rivercove.

“We know when we see 90 cubic metres per second Old North Road is going to flood… we’ve got different history where we know when things are going to happen,” he explained, adding that based on historical data, staff is also able to predict how long it will take to start seeing flooding in certain areas based on the readings at the Williamsport gauge. Another point of interest further downstream, according to Hernen, is that the Brunel Locks can’t release as much water as the Port Sydney dam can handle.

He also told those at the meeting that flow rates and conditions were similar in 2016 as they were this year, with rates measuring 182 cubic metres per second in 2016, which meant typical flood-prone areas were flooded.

So what happened this year?

The flow rates were slightly lower than in 2016 at 181 cubic metres per second. “So based on our history and based on what we see, we weren’t expecting to see the flooding that we saw downtown. The difference in this flood, which nobody had ever seen before, was the ten-day period,” said Hernen. “Normally the water goes up and it comes down in a three to four-day period. This year the water went up, it dropped down to about 150 cubic metres per second, and it basically stayed there,” he explained, adding that more rain brought the water levels back up towards the end of this year’s flood event. “So we had a prolonged period of water coming into the system that we’d never seen before, and all that water was being backed up if you will in the downtown area and all the lakes in the whole Muskoka watershed were filling up rapidly.”

Some of what the residents had to say:

Would removing the swing bridge help?

Dan Barkwell, whose business Moose Delaney’s was badly impacted during the flood, asked whether removing the swing bridge would solve the problem. “I’m not an expert in that but I’m telling you the bridge acts as a dam,” responded Hernen, adding that it would move the water to another location, but the experts would have to figure out where it would go and the impact it would have downstream.

Huntsville Mayor Scott Aitchison said there have been discussions about replacing the bridge with a more modern structure in the past, which may have allowed more water to flow under it, but there were arguments from people in the community who saw it as a historic bridge that should be preserved. Aitchison said he would ask the engineers at the District of Muskoka, which is responsible for the bridge, whether there might be a way to modify it “and we can at least get some analysis done on that, for sure,” he said.

What about a berm and a backflow storm water valve?

Barkwell, who was the first one to ask questions during the public part of the meeting, also wanted to know whether a berm along the low spots of the river bank might help. “I also know that it first comes up through the storm drains, is there a plan in place for maybe a backflow system in the storm drains?”

Hernen said the storm system that connects to Brendale Square also runs from McDonald’s on King William Street to  West Road, North Fetterly Street and all the side streets in that area, and out through the storm drain by Boston Pizza.

He said the Town did some repair work to a pipe in the area last fall and asked the project engineer about installing a backflow valve. “They didn’t feel that the one-way valve would do anything. They felt that the water pressure coming from the town side if you will, from the streets, would easily override that and wouldn’t have any effect at all.”

He said the engineer was once more asked to reevaluate that in the spring, and the opinion was still the same. “They did offer to do a full extensive study on that obviously, but their initial response was it won’t help you solve your problem.”

Hernen said the problem with a stormwater sewer system is it’s not a sealed pressure system. “They’re a gravity-flow system and if you try and start to restrict the flow, you’re going to run into problems at your catch basins and your pipes blowing apart will cause more problems,” he said. “The other thing that’s got to be considered is all the businesses and all the houses which are connected to the storm system, if we plug it up what are we going to do to those homes as well? So, could it be done? It would have to be an extensive evaluation of the whole system as to how high you’d have to build everything up and how much fill you’d have to bring in and what effects it would have on the storm system.”

Aitchison said that does not mean there isn’t another solution that could be considered. “And that’s something that I’ve committed that we will as a council look into because I think I’ve been heard many times saying what we have been doing, cleaning up after every flood and hoping it’s not as bad next year, is not a sustainable solution.” In terms of a berm, Aitchison said he did not know whether that would work, “it is, of course, private property all the way along there.” He said he’s heard people suggest that when John Street was rebuilt it could’ve been raised and used as a dam. “Of course that would probably just make things worse for Boston Pizza. It would affect fewer properties I suppose but that might be part of the broader solution as well in discussions with the private landowner there, but we will make decisions about how we proceed based on a pretty thorough analysis of the whole area.”

Why is the Town not offering sandbags to residents and is there a way to prevent flooding from culverts?

Diane Cousineau-Walsh who lives at the base of the locks in a home inherited from her family described the hardship of trying to secure sandbags during the flood in order to save her property. She said she spent about two hours on the phone trying to find sand. Many of the local companies had sand but no bags and the Town did not give out sandbags. She said it was very difficult to buy sandbags with a limited income to try and keep the water at bay and said there was 14 inches of water in her home, which did not crest the road but came through a Town culvert. She asked the Town to consider a backflow prevention valve for her culvert.

Hernen said the Town did give out sandbags during the 2013 flooding but there was very little uptake. He said the Town stored those sandbags but they degraded and “the next time we went to use them they were no good,” and they ended up in the landfill. “So our policy has been in our flood plan, which is a council approved or acknowledged flood plan,” he said, adding that the municipality does not supply them anymore.

“We make sure the local retailers have a supply. We have offered sand, we did through this flood event,” said Hernen. “But we left it to the retailers. There’s never been a big uptake in sandbags.”

Hernen said there’s also very little time to prepare for sandbags. He said from the Williamsport gauge to the Rivercove area, which usually gets hit the hardest, residents have about 12 hours to prepare when they know heavy flows are coming. “There’s no way in the world you could sandbag in time without a huge army of resources,” he said, adding that Bracebridge has more time to prepare, they had about a five to six-day warning this time around, which gave them time to use sandbags.

“A sandbag wall is designed to help divert and direct the water, if you’re going to try to use the sandbag to hold the water back, it doesn’t work well,” said Hernen, adding that there are other more expensive alternatives that can be explored if council wishes. “We’ve talked about it ourselves, we don’t even know where to even begin to sandbag in this community if you’re trying to sandbag the rivers or the one-offs. I don’t know where you’d begin or how to accomplish that.”

Aitchison said investigating either sandbags or other alternative water mitigation methods will be part of council discussions about emergency preparedness and asked Hernen whether a backflow prevention valve would work on the culvert at the base of the Brunel Locks. Hernen said a resident on Old North Road had put in a cap on the culvert by his property to try and stop it from flooding him out. He said he took a look this year, “and I can tell you there was just as much water on both sides of the road in that location, so the cap did no good.”

Aitchison asked Hernen whether an analysis could be done to see if it might help in that particular location and Hernen agreed.

It usually rains in April

Ross Kirwin also spoke at the meeting and said given the historical data available and the obvious snow load in the system coupled with the fact that it does tend to rain in April, perhaps a better emergency preparedness plan would have been appreciated by the citizens of the community in order to better prepare.

Aitchison said there is a plan in place and the Town takes its lead from Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) staff. He said the provincial government has committed $5 million to review the watershed system, which includes this area.

“We actually do have a plan and we have a pretty good plan that’s based on sort of what we’ve experienced in the past that has informed us pretty well but I think that why we’ve decided to do this now is because this was very different than anything we’ve seen before, not just in terms of snow load but in terms of the duration of it, we’ve never seen that before. Because of that and because of the fact that we are seeing these floods more frequently, I have concluded and I think my council colleagues would agree, that the plan we have isn’t going to work in the future,” said Aitchison, adding that the plan the MNRF has is probably also not sufficient anymore.

We need to update that plan and it needs to be more comprehensive and there are probably some things that we’re going to need to do physically within our community to address the changing nature of the watershed.”  Huntsville Mayor Scott Aitchison

Others like Port Sydney resident Sandy Inkster, who lives on the river and whose home was flooded, were a little less forgiving. She said that while Huntsville public officials were reporting that the water had reached its peak, she was alerting everyone and telling them “this is different.”

Port Sydney resident says she felt excluded

She said she was unable to reach anyone at the Town on the holiday Monday but managed to purchase some sandbags from a local retailer. She questioned the change in policy from 2013 where every household impacted was allotted 10 sandbags by the municipality to help mitigate flooding. She also questioned the attitude of those she did manage to reach at Town Hall when its offices reopened on Tuesday. “At no point did anyone say, ‘are you safe? Do you need help? What can we do?’ Instead, she was told staff did not know that the river had gone over the bank in Port Sydney. She said at that point the water had reached about six inches inside her home.

Inkster said she found it interesting that when she called Hydro One at midnight to go and help her turn the power off to her home so she could walk around safely, the question they asked is whether she was safe. She said the same happened when she had to call CAA for roadside assistance, they asked if she was safe, yet at no time did municipal employees ask if she was okay.

“I’m wondering about the scope of attentiveness beyond the scope of proper Huntsville,” said Inkster. “As a tax-paying resident in Port Sydney I’m concerned that in the scope of attention we were ignored and it [flood waters]seemed to have come into Port Sydney in a surge of greater urgency than what was being experienced in Huntsville… Look beyond the streets of Huntsville to include the other communities,” she told staff and council.

Aitchison apologized that Town staff did not apparently seem to know what was going on in Port Sydney or ask her if she was okay. “That kind of thing will never happen again under my watch,” said the Mayor.

Why is the MNRF slowing the flow?

Another resident who lives on Bayshore Blvd. said he and his wife were flooded out of their home on April 22 and they’re still not able to return. “I’ve been there since 1997, never seen the water as high as it was,” he said.

The resident told those present that about a week after they were forced out of their home he saw the MNRF putting logs back in the dam at the Brunel locks.

“I was still flooded. My property was under water and I’d like to know why the MNR was putting logs back in the dam, maybe to save people down south from getting flooded? I don’t particularly care about them down there, sorry, but when my property is [being flooded]they should not be putting logs in, they should be taking logs out. I don’t know if that’s the solution but it sure would help,” he said.

Aitchison said municipal representatives would be speaking to the MNRF to get some sort of explanation.

Others had similar questions about what would be done to prevent similar flooding in future or at least alert residents so that they could prepare.

Aitchison said a review of the Muskoka River Water Management Plan is underway. He said all area mayors have urged the MNRF to take a closer look at the plan, he also said the District of Muskoka has almost completed an entire floodplain mapping analysis, which will provide additional data as the water management plan is reviewed.

“There’s a lot of research being done now to determine how we can, as you say, either prevent or prepare better for these events as they happen. I can’t give you an answer as to when that will be completed but the Province has committed to working with us and to updating all the plans,” said Aitchison.

Resident thanks Town staff for prompt action

Another resident thanked the Town for closing a particular road shortly after a complaint was launched about the wake of vehicles sending water to the resident’s door. She said Town staff responded within an hour of her making the call.

Following input from the public, representatives from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing explained their Disaster Recovery Assistance for Ontarians program. Those with questions can call 1-844-780-8925, email [email protected] or visit Ontario.ca/disasterassistance.

You can find a Muskoka watershed map with hydrological features from Muskoka Water Web here (pdf).

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3 Comments

  1. With respect to our leaders who I feel dropped the ball on this flooding issue. Property tax incentives s/b provided now to all the folks who can submit legitimate bills to the repair work necessary to repair and flood proof their land. An error was made by our leaders in their planning processes so folks who have damage have to now pay the price.
    Some tough decisions must be made like upgrading locks, the Huntsville bridge, Buy the beer pit land and use it for water management in an emergency. Radical but practical thinking to protect us all from the future 100 year storm that has happened twice in 6 years.
    There s/b one spot where all folks know to go for sandbags and their eventual return.

  2. Don’t think you will ever stop the flooding as we progress through the obvious effects of climate change. Weather has not been the same in recent years in Winter or Summer .Flood would have occurred regardless of massive input of Taxpayers dollars…. Disappointment , to me ,was in response and mitigation efforts to reduce damage .When an event of this magnitude occurs there should be informed Town Staff on duty 24 hours a day , Holidays be damned , to respond to victims needs whether it me information or physical resources ….Plan for the Worst and Hope for the Best !

  3. Brian Tapley on

    I thought I’d add a few (mostly tech) comments here to help maybe put some of this in perspective. These comments are based on years of watching our local water systems, some tech information and a bit of common sense. If I am wrong on anything, I welcome a sound technical correction as my reason for these comments is just to increase understanding for everyone. Yes I suffered flood and ice damage too, but I blame nobody for this. It was the proverbial “perfect storm” and no one entity could have made much difference.

    I would add that I attended the keynote presentation by Mr. Peter Sale today at the Summit Center meeting on climate change and essentially he is saying that the data that is available indicates that we should expect flooding like this more and more often in the future. It will not magically just go away. We can expect it to be worse in the near future actually.

    With respect to the Doppler article….
    Storm drain back flow preventive valves will, of course not work unless one completes the system. One needs to get the water from that storm drain up and into the river. The back flow preventer will stop the river from coming to you via the storm drain but you are still faced with all the water that is flowing in the storm drain from the area it drains. You have to pump this water out of the storm drain and up into the river. This is a LOT of water. The pumps and tanks are not small, although the actual head is usually not that great. Any town such as New Orleans has exactly this problem and has solved it (within reason) this way so any engineer that says such valves “won’t work” is just not looking at all their options. Of course back flow valves are subject to failure due to many reasons, not least of which wold be debris plugging them and this will always be an issue. Pumps are very expensive and considering the need for them to work when power might be off on the grid the cost just rises once more. They would only work for a few weeks a year and thus maintenance and testing would also be an issue. Last problem is that one has to find and plug all the storm drains for this to have any hope of working and even then, extreme rainfall events might overpower the pumps or mechanical failures could still cause flooding. Such an active prevention system would be doable but expensive and the costs would never go away.
    Without regard to cost, such a system will work despite what some engineers at District might say. Do we want to pay the cost for this? That is the question of the day and then the next question is who is going to pay? All of us or just those who actually benefit? More issues.

    One little point is an error in the writers notes. Where they say that water is picked up from Pen and Fairy lake which also flows towards Lake of Bays….. Be assured that no water from the Huntsville system flows into the Lake of Bays system. Lake of Bays is about 80 feet higher than Pen Lake so absolutely no water will flow into Lake of Bays from the Huntsville system. No effort needed here and nothing would change this anyway. There might be a few small creeks that could perhaps be redirected but more than likely that redirection would be to add them to the Huntsville system, not the other way around.
    The Huntsville watershed is the North Branch of the Muskoka River while the Lake of Bays system is the South Branch of the Muskoka River.
    It may be worth noting that the channel just upstream of the dam at Baysville is the final controlling factor for Lake of Bays level. Like the bridge in Huntsville it is the determining factor of lake level in Lake of Bays during an extreme flood event, not the actual dam. This is not an intuitive point.

    Both these rivers come together in Bracebridge, at the Riverside Inn location and then they do a great job of flooding the river out past Santa’s Village. Usually there is little or no capacity to “hold back” water upstream of this location during a flood of any significant duration. This fact is true of the entire watershed actually as there are no significant reservoirs anywhere that would not be “full” by the time the flooding starts to get serious.

    MNR did lower Lake of Bays to the lowest level I have ever seen this year, before the flood. They could do no more on that lake and I would assume that they did the same on all the upstream lakes but their options and the capacity is limited and when the system is full the flood just takes it’s own course and nothing more can be done in this regard.

    Flood victims need to be always aware that although their situation may be bad, attempts to dump the problem “downstream” will merely make the bad situation spread downstream with the water crest. If I remember correctly MNR did add some logs to some area dams in an attempt to reduce the flooding in Bracebridge and Lake Muskoka. You can argue the merits of this both technically, with regard to if it actually worked at all and also economically, as in who’s property is more valuable and worthy of attempts to mitigate the flood level. Obviously someone in command thought that increasing the duration of flooding in Lake of Bays, Huntsville et al was preferred over increasing the flooding just downstream of Bracebridge and in Lake Muskoka. Why? I have no data, you’d have to ask the MNR and their bosses.
    I took a drive at the height of the flood and looked at the situation in Bala. At that time they were letting all the water go that it was possible to dump. Again, one has to look both at the upstream and downstream of each dam. One might lower Lake Muskoka a few inches by washing everything on the river below Bala away but which is preferable? I don’t think this was a question in need of an answer as from what I saw at Bala they could not have released any more water from their dams at that location. Perhaps, if the power plant had been operational they could have passed a bit more water via it but it was not yet complete.

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