ERIEAU – The provincial government is ready to help find a permanent solution to the flooding problems along Erie Shore Drive near this Lake Erie community, but it won’t come easy and it will take time.
Ontario’s Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman visited the area on Saturday – originally not intending to have any media attention before being approached by The Chatham Daily News – to get an assessment of the situation. This included talking to area farmers along with some people who own homes and cottages along Erie Shore Drive.
“Obviously, it’s real challenge for a lot of folks around here with the flooding from the past week,” Hardeman said.
He added that’s why he was asked by Chatham-Kent Leamington MPP Rick Nicholls to look at the situation on behalf of the agriculture ministry and the province.
For the second time this year, properties along Erie Shore Drive experienced flooding from strong storms that sent powerful waves crashing over and through some break walls, causing significant flood damage to many of the dozens of homes in the area.
The area remains under a state of emergency with another storm forecast for overnight Tuesday.
When asked if there are some assurances he could give that help is coming, Hardeman said, “That’s why I’m here today. What I’m assuring them is that we’re there to do what we can to ensure that we do all we can to alleviate the challenges that they’re facing.”
While the lakeside properties are concern, government officials are looking at the potential for greater damage if Erie Shore Drive, which also serves as a dike to protect low-lying agricultural land, is breached.
The worst-case scenario is a breach could leave 1,500 to 1,600 acres of farmland under water.
“My primary concern is the safety of residents and protection of farmland, because if there’s a flood, not only will it ruin crops, but that whole area will be underwater and we can’t have that,” said Nicholls.
He said the flooding experienced along the Thames River in the last two years could pale in comparison to what could happen in the Erieau area.
“We don’t want to fear-monger, but we also we want to be proactive and take a look at what are cost-effective ways to ensure that we don’t have a dike that has been breached and that people continue to farm, businesses will not be lost and, of course, houses won’t be lost as well,” Nicholls said.
The MPP said the province’s disaster team will be coming in to assess the situation after the state of emergency is lifted, which is anticipated to happen by the end of this week.
Lynn Girty, a long-time farmer in the area, said his grandfather Lynn Robertson was among the several farmers who built the original dike in the early 1900s, where Erie Shore Drive is now located.
The shore of Lake Erie once went up to the Bisnett Line, he added.
“If that dike breached, depending on the lake level, that water would come up and flood that land right to the Bisnett Side Road, including parts of farms on the other side of the road,” Girty said.
He said a lot of engineering has gone into the road, because it was originally built with the materials the farmers had a the time.
“The issue now is: ‘How do you engineer a proper dike given at the same time you can’t allow the lake to sneak in on you and flood the farm land?’” Girty said.
A complicating factor is that homes are now located on the dike.
“That really adds to the complication and potential problems of trying to engineer a dike that at the same time tries to protect the farm land – which is what its sole purpose was – but hopefully maybe can help the people who have houses there deal with the issues they’re dealing with,” Girty said.
For years, no structures were located on the dike along the lake shore.
Girty said his grandfather told him some squatters came in after the Second World War the former Harwich Township of the day eventually decided “well, if they were there, and we were going to have to provide services, they better tax them like everybody else got taxed.”
South Kent Coun. Trevor Thompson believes the issue of needing to protect the farm land helps the overall situation in terms of receiving financial help from upper levels of government.
He added so do property owners along Erie Shore Drive.
“We’ve always said the farmers have a seat at the table,” he said.
Mayor Darrin Canniff stressed nothing has been decided at this point, noting, “the key here is it’s the municipal and provincial government working together.”
He added they will be working with residents to come up with a solution, then contacting the federal government.
“We could throw money at it immediately, but we might find out in three months from now that wasn’t the best solution,” Canniff said.
Thompson said this situation has been “absolutely a nightmare for everybody involved,” adding this is not just a “simple back-fill and repave” to repair Erie Shore Drive.
“A long-term solution is going to be, I would think, months away from actually being figured out,” he said.
Chatham-Kent’s general manager of infrastructure and engineering services, Thomas Kelly, said the recent storm caused severe degradation to the slope of Erie Shore Drive.
He said public works crews worked hard to make repairs to the supporting structure, which included sealing “stress cracks” in the roadway.
Erie Shore Drive remains closed and the reopening is still to be determined.
“I’m not confident to do that until we have a complete assessment of the road,” Kelly said.
He added there also needs to be an analysis of the future risks.
“We may be doing some major changes to that road, including going with strictly a one-way direction,” Thomas said.
He said this move was made in the 1980s, adding the decision hasn’t been finalized.
“That’s definitely an option on the table, in the short term.”
What they said:
The Chatham Daily News spoke with some residents who were still cleaning up from the recent flooding. Here’s what they said:
– Terry Morris, of London, and her husband Scott said they are putting renovations on hold until they know more about the future protection measures.
“If the water keeps coming in, there’s no use,” she said.
– Frank Sparks, who has spent time in the area since his childhood in the 1950s, said, “This is highest I’ve ever seen it in my life, the water.”
Looking to the ‘Gales of November,’ he added, “Believe it or not, it’s going to get a lot worse.”
– Shannon Westgate said, “This is the worst it’s ever been,” since she and her husband bought their cottage five years ago.
The London couple put a break wall in to provide some protection, but it collapsed into the lake during the recent storm. The powerful waves also damaged the patio door on their cottage.
Unless the break wall can be fixed, she said there’s no sense in trying to repair the cottage.
– Dave Dodman and his brother Bill credit the break wall they installed two years ago after damaging storms, for preventing their cottage from being swept across the road during the recent storm.
However, it’s frustrating continuing to deal with the impacts of storms, Dave Dodman said.
“It’s been disheartening,” he said. “You do things, then you have to do them again.”