When will Lake Ontario Finally be Enough of an Inconvenience for us to Care?
Throughout my education, I’ve read frequent articles on cities pioneering sustainability approaches and practices – cities like Seattle, London, LA, Melbourne and Amsterdam are often cited as examples of adaptive, responsible metropolises. I usually read these pieces with the general definition of sustainability in mind, and enough context to understand what made those particular cities worried about the future of their aquatic resources. What was rarely mentioned, if ever, in these case studies was the point when the city in question actually began to care about their water (or likely lack there-of) and what marked this pivotal change in thinking, stewardship and local governance.
In Toronto we have seen an increase in rainfall and flooding, which reached peaks in 2017 on the Toronto Islands and continues to climb today. In May 2017, the islands were flooded during record-breaking rainstorms, causing over $7.4 million CAD in damages, and the islands have yet to fully recover. There is still evidence of water damage and the reoccurring threat of water contamination from sewage with rising lake levels, which are now being furthered with continued flooding. These events jeopardize the economic opportunities the island offers (including festivals, a small theme park and surrounding beaches) and undermine the living conditions for the 260 homeowners who reside there.
Now, Lake Ontario has climbed to the highest water levels ever on record at 75.94 metres, and all we have committed to is filling sandbags around the islands. As of June 3, 2019, the islands are open but there have been fewer visitors due to clogged roads, waterlogged areas and prohibited areas (Lapierre, 2019) with published warnings on what changes to expect along the waterfront this summer due to these climatic changes.
Even on the mainland of Toronto, homeowners have faced frequent basement floodings and street closures due to rainfall and resulting flooding. Yet, we have decided to just ignore Lake Ontario’s water level rise completely, as for a majority of the city it seems to remain in sight but out of mind. Yet how long can this last? While the lake continues to rise, it will continue to cause more damage across the entire city – through closed beaches, potential sewage contamination and further environmental damage to our streets and homes. Toronto Life has named this time the “Age of the Flood”, but somehow we’re stagnant in our actions to address the problem, and only respond retroactively at all levels of agency (individual, community, regional and provincial).
Toronto has always been a lakeside city, it is part of our culture. Ask a local where south is and they will tell you one of two things: ‘wherever the CN tower is’ or “where the lake is”. The lake is how we orient ourselves, and where we flock to in the summer the minute it is above 15˚C. Now, that normality is in question, and we are facing the backlash from flooding and rainfall across the entire city. What will it take for Toronto to be a city of adaptation that addresses the changing Lake Ontario and will we be a city that future students study as climate adaptation leaders? Clearly, it is more than extreme flooding and precipitation. I only hope that we manage to adapt quickly and that young stewards will create the disruption to finally make Lake Ontario the inconvenience we need to care about.
Next week, hundreds of international and regional experts in water quality management, among other subject matters, come to Toronto to exchange knowledge, build capacities and skills to tackle the emerging water challenges we face as a society. You still have a chance to register online for the International Young Water Professionals Conference, 23-27 June 2019: https://iwa-youngwaterprofessionals.org/