Original Published on Sep 14, 2022 at 15:33
By Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
For years, waterfront property owners on Lake Bernard in Sundridge and Strong have not seen eye-to-eye with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) on where to set water levels on the lake throughout the year.
The levels are determined by removing or adding stop logs at the Lake Bernard Dam depending on precipitation.
Waterfront property owners like Stephen O’Donnell claim the timing of when the logs are removed or reinstalled triggers events that result in shoreline soil erosion.
O’Donnell and his wife Judy bought their Lake Bernard home in 1998 and in the ensuing 24 years
O’Donnell claims they have lost about 20 feet of shoreline.
“When we first moved here you could walk on the beach and it was a gentle slope to the water,” O’Donnell said.
“It’s not like that anymore. Now it’s a big drop.”
O’Donnell says as spring arrives, sheets of ice on the lake are pushed toward the shoreline where they run up against sand.
O’Donnell says the sand offers no resistance against the ice and it’s able to push the sand into humps as high as four feet.
At this point in the year, there aren’t many logs at the Lake Bernard Dam and O’Donnell says soon after the MNRF begins adding more logs to increase the water level and this is where the erosion begins.
“As the water starts to rise it begins clawing at the humps of sand which fall into the water,” he said.
“This is a continuous process and the sand eventually disappears into the lake.”
O’Donnell says trees and shrubs have fallen into the lake over the years because the land they were rooted in has been eroded and with no ground to anchor themselves to, the trees and plant growth fall into the water.
O’Donnell acknowledges there is always going to be soil erosion but says MNRF practices on how the local dam is operated has accelerated that process.
Lake Bernard is home to about 300 property owners.
O’Donnell lives on the lake’s northside and in talking to owners on this side of the lake, he says there’s a consensus that the dam’s operation is the source of the problem.
O’Donnell adds the soil erosion is not as much an issue on the southside of the lake because the terrain is rockier.
O’Donnell says the property owners have repeatedly suggested to the MNRF that removing the log dams earlier in the fall will get the water level down and keep it down over the winter.
He says this has the effect of keeping the ice sheets in an area further from the shoreline because the water won’t be deep enough and close enough to shore which would give the ice sheets more room in which to move over the lake.
They further suggested that the logs not be reinstalled until the last of the ice is off the lake the following spring.
O’Donnell says any sooner than that results in ice pushing up against the shoreline because the water level starts rising making it easier for sheets of ice to move around.
Adam Wakefield, the MNRF’s District Manager for the Parry Sound District, has a different explanation for the soil erosion and says the Lake Bernard Dam is not the reason.
Wakefield says the main water influences on Lake Bernard are weather conditions like snow and rain and how they impact the lake.
He says MNRF staff have a delicate balance to maintain when operating the dam.
Wakefield says staff are careful not to release too much water from the lake during the spring because the levels may remain low if it’s a dry spring and the levels will drop even further in the summer if conditions remain dry.
Wakefield says many factors contribute to soil erosion on Lake Bernard.
He says in addition to ice pushes, and fluctuating water levels, the removal or loss of shoreline vegetation and wind waves where the wind pushes water up against the shoreline can also cause soil erosion.
Wakefield says Lake Bernard has no islands on it to help break up wind action “when it’s whipping across the lake.”
And Wakefield adds with no islands to interrupt the large surface area of the lake, the shoreline is more susceptible to wind, wave and ice pushes that come to the shoreline and erode the existing soil.
Wakefield says the initial operating plan for the Lake Bernard Dam was created in 1962 with input from a variety of stakeholders including local residents and the Lake Bernard Property Owners Association.
He says the timing of the removal and reinstallation of the stop logs has been very consistent except for when weather conditions call for minor adjustments.
Wakefield says the MNRF has to operate the dam in a way that takes into account factors like ecological impacts to surrounding areas and at the same time juggle the interests of a broad range of users and stakeholders.
He says this includes maintaining a water level that allows for recreational and navigational use on the lake.
Wakefield says the MNRF has the added responsibility of ensuring the water sits at an appropriate level so that Lake Trout eggs are not de-watered during their incubation period over the winter.
“The current operating plan is considered to balance the needs of most water lakefront residents,” Wakefield said.
Wakefield toured the O’Donnell property earlier this summer and saw first hand the damage ice pushes have done to his property and other nearby properties.
“I don’t want to make it sound like we don’t care,” Wakefield told The Nugget.
“We understand the impact ice and other factors can have on waterfront property owners and the damage this causes. But owning land and infrastructure on water bodies also has inherent risks and damage from environmental causes can be expected from time to time.”
Wakefield says the MNRF wants to work collaboratively with waterfront property owners and local politicians to identify options that help reduce soil erosion but adds the Ministry is limited by the nature of the Lake Bernard Dam which he points out is not a flood-control dam.
The MNRF has made several suggestions to mitigate soil erosion.
Wakefield says one approach is the soft armouring technique.
He says this bio-engineering combines putting rocks and vegetation along the shoreline which absorb the energy of waves hitting the shoreline.
Stephen O’Donnell says soft armour techniques are not only expensive but won’t work on Lake Bernard.
He says waves hitting the shoreline are not the issue but rather the ice pushes and ice sheets are.
O’Donnell adds rocks and vegetation dotting the shoreline are no match for the ice pushes and ice expansions.
The strong force from the ice will easily push the rocks and vegetation further onto shore creating another hump that eventually falls into the water as the lake level rises.
However, O’Donnell says if water levels are kept low in the fall and winter then there isn’t enough water close to the shoreline where the ice push can make its way.
He says when water levels are low, the ice doesn’t move around as much even during a strong wind and even if an ice pile takes place, it occurs well offshore.
Considering the age of the MNRF operating plan for the dam, O’Donnell says it’s time the “antiquated” plan was updated.
He says for years the MNRF focus has been on maintaining water levels that meet summer recreational activities.
O’Donnell says the recreational component must become a secondary goal and that the MNRF’s primary goal with the operational plan has to focus on lake health and shoreline stability.