By Stewart Grant
For local golfers, the sight of a flooded St. Marys Golf & Country Club (“SMGCC”) has become all too familiar in recent years. The rainy spring this year has made the issue more difficult than ever, resulting in canceled golf tournaments, lost wages for employees, and tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue to course owners. The issue has also affected area farmers whose planting season has been disrupted, and area residents who must deal with flooded backyards and parks.
Matt Staffen, General Manager of SMGCC, spoke with the Independent this week and stated that the perennial flooding issue is the direct result of the manner in which the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (“UTRCA”) manages the Wildwood Dam & Reservoir.
“In 2013, due to low rain levels in 2012, UTRCA changed their mandate and started filling up the reservoir earlier in the year, as early as February 1st, leaving nearly zero capacity for snow melt or normal rain events,” said Staffen. “Thereby, the Dam is set up to fail, as water levels are kept too high in the late winter, spring and summer months. Because of this new mandate, we still have not been able to open 18 holes after this recent flood which is having a significant impact on our golf operations, and in particular, our loyal membership group.”
Recently, the golf club released a petition on change.org to raise awareness of the issue, with the goal being to influence the UTRCA to modify their operating guidelines. As of press time, the petition had already received approximately 400 signatures from concerned local residents (to view the entire petition online, visit http://chng.it/MKDQcxmcCm.)
The crux of the issue relates to the location of the St. Marys Golf & Country Club (founded in 1931) within the Trout Creek floodplain. Staffen acknowledges that the golf course should expect a certain amount of flooding, however not of the magnitude that has occurred since 2013. “Normal rainfall should not be enough to cause flooding downstream of a Dam,” added Staffen. “All other golf courses in floodplains, except SMGCC, were open within 72 hours of May 25th’s rain, whereas we remain partially closed into the first week of June.”
“We have a developed an engineering study, using UTRCA data, that balances both flow augmentation and flood control prevention in Wildwood. Our results show that they can reach near 100% success in both priorities, just like how it (the Dam) was designed for in 1952. We have proven that every single flood since 2015 would have been prevented if UTRCA employed this strategy, while still meeting their other strategic objectives. We are looking for a win-win-win scenario (SMGCC-UTRCA-Members and residents of St. Marys), however we face continual resistance from UTRCA and feel that we are ignored. Overall, we will not stop until a win-win-win resolution is developed.”
Along with starting the petition, Staffen appeared on the CBC Radio One broadcast (FM 93.5) on Monday to explain his concerns. Ian Wilcox, General Manager of UTRCA, also appeared on the same “London Morning” show to address the issue.
“The golf course’s location in a floodplain does make it particularly vulnerable,” said Wilcox. “Floodplains are lands immediately adjacent to rivers and streams but they are needed to help convey water. They are part of the river system and their inundation with water is natural and not considered flooding. That’s why we have regulations in Ontario to keep development out of floodplains. Wildwood Dam is not designed to prevent Trout Creek from utilizing its natural floodplain.”
Wilcox has asked specifically by the radio host about Staffen’s assertion that UTRCA changed their mandate following 2012. Wilcox danced around the 2012 question with the following answer: “Our operations are based on a range of choices that our engineers have to use best judgment about how the dam is operated. There’s a comment about, ‘if we see rain coming, we should be pre-emptively acting. That is an incredibly difficult way to perform because it’s not rain, it’s runoff that we care about.’
“The St. Marys Golf Course is one of the most vulnerable businesses in the watershed because of its floodplain location,” Wilcox added.
Certainly, there is no argument that the St. Marys Golf & Country Club is vulnerable, as the spring conditions visibly attest. The question is whether UTRCA could be doing more to cooperate with the golf course while at the same time achieving their goals for flood control and flow augmentation.
Statement from Upper Thames River Conservation Authority
In the interest of representing both sides of the issue, the Independent reached out to UTRCA for a statement. The following was received by Steve Sauder, UTRCA Marketing Specialist:
It is difficult to operate many businesses and recreational facilities this year with the weather we are experiencing. The UTRCA dams and flood control structures are designed to reduce peak flows and Wildwood Dam is one part of the flood control system.
Floodplains need to convey water. They are part of the flood management system, their inundation is natural, and is not considered flooding.
Wildwood Dam is not designed to prevent Trout Creek from utilizing its natural floodplain. The St. Marys Golf Course is located within that floodplain.
Protection of life and property is the key reason that the Conservation Authorities Act does not allow development in floodplains. The primary purpose of floodplains is to convey water. There are parks, golf courses, and trails in floodplain areas throughout the watershed.
Municipalities, landowners and businesses must understand the risk of any activities in floodplains.
UTRCA staff have made the St. Marys golf course ownership aware that in fact the golf course benefits greatly from their location downstream of Wildwood Dam. Staff completed an analysis of stream flows from 1991 to 2016. During that time, if Wildwood Dam had not been in place, the golf course would have “lost” 83 days of golfing due to natural flows inundating parts for the course. With Wildwood Dam in place and attenuating flows, there were only 29 days where flows inundated the floodplain. This represents a 65% reduction in the impacts of high water, a benefit directly attributable to Wildwood Dam’s operation. It should also be noted that this benefit received by the golf course is paid for by public funding, not the course itself (84% paid by the City of London, 14% paid by the Town of St. Marys).