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Stockpiling toilet paper? That won't help deal with spring flooding

Areas of our region are bracing for the annual surge of water and its potentially harmful impact, says outdoors columnist
20200311_Stickleback Creek freshet (Hawke)
The Stickleback Creek freshet is a reminder that spring flooding is about to wash over our region. David Hawke/OrilliaMatters

In the coming week if you watch the 6 p.m. news, or if you’re still young enough to stay up, the 11 p.m. news, I predict that one of the top stories you’ll be seeing has to do with, not the lack of toilet paper, but the abundance of water.

Spring floods are upon us once again, and the TV reporters are digging out their hip waders and will soon be seen out standing in their field as they document the spring freshet.

Simcoe County has a wonderful array of rivers and streams, each carrying water down to the shores of Georgian Bay, so why is it that only a couple make the news each year, those being the Black and the Nottawasaga? Okay, so yes, the Coldwater and North also flood, but we don’t hear about them so much… why is that?

Some of the factors that lead to flood coverage are due to the length and location of the river, soil substrate and adjacent wetlands, but the biggest factor in news coverage is whether or not somebody’s house is about to float away. Now that’s news!

This whole situation starts on the top of a high hill, probably one of the highest hills in that immediate area, although not always. So a heavy spring rainfall happens and lands on the deep snow that’s atop that hill.

Each raindrop will soak into that snow and eventually flow down either the west side or the east side of the hill, and thus a watershed is defined.

As more and more water is shed to the sides of the hill, the bottom of the slope suddenly finds itself with the urge to purge all thi s gathering water… and that little summer creek suddenly finds itself flush with a fair bit of fresh water.

Now here’s where a cool thing comes into play: water is quite dense and therefore fairly heavy and has no choice but to become a victim of gravity.

As the topography of the hillside is by definition a slope, the water just keeps sliding downwards until things level out a bit. Now, if nature has been left alone to do her work, that level part at the bottom of the hill is where the water can now soak into the soil. A common name for this sponge area is “a wetland.”

But, of course, nature has not been left alone so that wetland has in all probability been ditched to ensure the water that came down from the hilltop just keeps on going without time to soak in.

As over 80% of the natural wetlands in southern Ontario are no longer allowed to exist, a whole lot of flushing takes place. The longer the river the more chances of wetland loss and the greater and faster the river fills up with water that should actually be somewhere deep in the soil.

The Nottawasaga River is like that, a long stretch of waterway that meanders through a lot of farmland as it heads down to Wasaga Beach. Not only have numerous wetlands been eliminated over time, but field drainage systems and municipal ditches ensure the water does not have a chance to soak in.

Other times, it’s just the plain and simple fact that the river starts in an area on the Canadian Shield, where there is no deep soil to collect the water, just a whole lot of rock. Whoosh and it’s gone.

This is the challenge with the Black River, which starts way up around Algonquin Park and slices through central Ontario before emptying out near Washago.

That’s a huge collection area with only one outlet, so by the time the Black River water gets down to meet the Green River, the volume can get to be a bit more than the riverbanks can handle.

On both of these rivers there is also the added spring thrill of ice jams. Pans of ice, once attached to the shores but now floating, hit a fallen tree and tilt on an angle.

This flat ice sheet is now a dam, holding back a bit of the current. Add together a whole lot of ice dams and the water does slow down, and collect, and rise, and tops the banks until it can flow across the pretty cottage lots.

And here’s where the Big Concern comes into play… real estate values are challenged! Insurance claims will be made! Water damage to house foundations will occur! Woe! Damn you Nature! Somebody call a TV crew! 

Flood-prone areas are often near the end run of the river, as all that upstream water has finally come together to create quite a volume. And river systems usually have a delta formation to some extent, where eons of spring flooding have deposited silt and debris carried down from far upstream.

This delta is what is mapped on land use planners' maps as a flood plain. It’s going to get wet here folks, every year, almost guaranteed.

And for some unknown reason these flood plains were, historically, granted building permits. And for some reason the owners claim confusion each year when the river water rises up and enters their basement. What’s up with that? Who knew, eh?

Maybe there will be a few soft-hearted toilet paper hoarders who will drop off a few thousand of their rolls to help soak up the flood waters? Stranger things have happened.