In an age in which everyone has worries, some have more than others.

Take for instance, Mike French, a resident of Toronto Islands on Lake Ontario, an area suddenly prone to flooding lake levels. His problems are not unlike those of Park Point residents in Duluth, where battering storms combine with rising lake levels to erode the beach and property lines.

“We are all preparing for the worst,” French said, “We will have our first community sandbagging event this coming weekend. We will have six events in total to sandbag the vulnerable sections of the community.”

Located just off the lakeshore from the city of Toronto, the islands have about 250 homes and 650 residents, including French.

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On a nice day, one would have no problem communing with the appeal of the islands. But when the wind kicks up, breakwalls can be torn apart by 10- to 12-foot waves with the energy to erode beaches and natural parks areas. It’s a familiar refrain in Duluth, where lake levels entered this month 13 inches above normal — though having experienced some relief with a February recede.

French ferries 20 minutes round-trip every day into the city. He described the Great Lakes as a bathtub with cascading effects all the way into Lake Ontario acting as the drain. All the Great Lakes are up above 100-year averages, including Ontario by almost a meter, nearly three times the Lake Superior burden.

“The static water level at 249 feet is no problem for me, but for a lot of other people whose houses are lower than mine, it’s a serious concern,” said Bernie Gigas, a Rochester, New York, homeowner on Lake Ontario. He’s a chemical engineer who has done a lot of work in the mining industry.

Residents of the Toronto Islands fill sandbags during the flooding caused by historic high water levels on Lake Ontario in 2019. (Mike French photo)
Residents of the Toronto Islands fill sandbags during the flooding caused by historic high water levels on Lake Ontario in 2019. (Mike French photo)

He's no fan of blaming climate change, he said, but he's another close observer of the lake levels. He believes in solutions found in pulling the levers of systems. He's the kind of person who meets with members of the International Lake Ontario River Board when he sees that up to 125,000 homes on Lake Ontario’s north and south shores are at risk.

This month, that group won a two-week delay to the opening of the Montreal-Lake Ontario section of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Navigation will open April 1, allowing for a prolonged period of increased outflow of water at the Moses-Saunders Dam. The shipping industry was understanding.

“The high water levels throughout the system are concerning for all involved, from perspectives of navigability, property damage, and economic and community resiliency,” said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority in a statement following the news of the delay.

But industry prevails more often than not, French and Gigas told the News Tribune. Gigas argues for a potential early shutdown of the seaway Dec. 1 in seasons when conditions are ripe for flooding.

“We’re in deep right now,” Gigas said. “You can plan for six months in advance,” was his advice to the shipping industry.

Residents of the Toronto Islands fill sandbags during the flooding caused by historic high water levels on Lake Ontario in 2019. (Mike French photo)
Residents of the Toronto Islands fill sandbags during the flooding caused by historic high water levels on Lake Ontario in 2019. (Mike French photo)

After the grain industry enjoyed a particularly good year on Lake Superior, one grain source told the News Tribune high water levels were in part to thank.

“The overall shipping season out of the Great Lakes was robust due to historic high water levels, relatively cheap Great Lakes freight and affordable ocean freight,” SR Wheat merchandiser James Mueting said. “The higher water levels meant more tonnage per boat which lowered fixed costs, and the lack of cargoes heading to China from the U.S. made ocean freight trade at affordable levels compared to years past.”

Duluth Seaway Port Authority spokesperson Jayson Hron was quick to head off support for high waters.

“High water can allow ships to sail at a deeper draft and carry more tonnage per shipment on open water, but it can also be a hindrance,” he said. “Powerful currents, for instance with increased flow in the St. Lawrence Seaway, tend to cause navigational delays and reduced speeds, increased need for tug boat assistance, higher costs, and sometimes even diminished cargo-carrying capacity.”

Hron advocates for “normal water levels,” over all other sorts.

For French, the answers come by staying active. He tracks data and projects risk. An engineer, he solves problems all day long, he said. He joined the islands’ emergency preparedness committee and is steering strategy needed to combat what he expects will be time spent on the edge of his seat.

“The problem will only get exacerbated once shipping starts and the flows are cut back more,” he said. “The big unknown is the level of flooding that the Ottawa River will experience during the spring freshet.”

Toronto Islands resident Mike French. (Mike French photo)
Toronto Islands resident Mike French. (Mike French photo)

It is this flooding, French added, that triggers the closing of the dam gates on the St. Lawrence River, to spare Montreal, and causes Lake Ontario levels to quickly rise. He continues to advocate for the International Joint Commission to increase outflow levels year-round.

Meanwhile, the city of Toronto and the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority are working in parallel to start implementing permanent mitigation solutions on the Toronto Islands. They are raising some low sections of roads through the islands (needed for emergency response) and adding some rock armoring and berms to some of the beach areas, French reported.

"'This is the way it is' doesn't do anything for me," French said. "It feels like an Apollo 13 moment, running out of oxygen. We have a certain amount of time to fix the problem. We’ve got a lot of water coming our way. If we don't fix it, we’re going to drown. That’s what it feels like to me."