David McNiece has reached a frustrating stage in his life where he has begun to measure the passage of time by the rise and fall of flood waters on Kettle Creek.
In February 2022 the creek’s banks swelled and pushed about four feet of water across the ground floor of his full-service marina in Port Stanley. In 2019 Stan’s Marina suffered a similar trauma.
Since he bought the business from Stan Speers in September 2000, McNiece counts at least two other lesser floods, although a foot of water in the service bay and store is nothing to scoff at.
The ice and water three years ago caused $150,000 in damage, pushing his insurance deductible so high that McNiece won’t even bother to claim the 2022 damages.
Instead, he’s relying on the goodwill of the community to help him get things back up and running before the start of the 2022 recreational boating season. A GoFundMe campaign has so far raised about $13,500 toward the business restoration. Many residents of the region have dropped by to help him clean up. Some have walked donations down the driveway.
“I’ve had great community support,” McNiece said in a recent interview. A great deal of his electrical and fuel parts inventory was ruined. “A lot of people are coming in to help me clean up. There are old customers, new customers, businesses in town, and people I don’t know.”
Kettle Creek has been draining some 520 square kilometers of mostly agricultural land from its watershed well before the marina opened in 1961. Flooding is synonymous with life on Kettle Creek.
The granddaddy of them all may have been a massive flood in 1855 that destroyed the bridge and most of the buildings in Selborne. That community “once vied with Port Stanley as an important harbour and centre of settlement on the north shore of Lake Erie,” according to local historian Craig Cole. It was located on both banks of Kettle Creek, just west of Moore Water Gardens, but was never rebuilt.
Nothing – and everything – has changed since then. Residential and commercial development along the watercourse continues at a rapid pace, but the creek still floods like clockwork. It’s difficult to imagine whether anything can be done about it.
“I’m so tired of Central Elgin,” said McNiece. “Flooding needs to be made an election issue.” His rational is based on a rough estimate of the recreational boating industry’s importance to the local economy. McNiece figures there are about 400 boats moored every season north of the lift bridge. Others visit from the U.S. and other points across the Great Lakes. “From the bridge back, it’s probably a $5 million industry benefiting the whole town.
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Stan’s Marina was a mess after ice and flood waters moved in.
“The municipality forgets the economic impact … the restaurants, the theatre, the stores,” he added. More and more, McNiece, 67, wonders whether he should surrender to the market value of his property, and abandon his passion for providing marina services. “The (municipality) has no emergency plan down here. The municipality collects all the taxes, (but) every time it happens, there is hundreds of thousands of dollars in flood damage.
“Two days before, we had a skating rink out there,” he said. “We had to jump down off the dock to go skating.” The next thing he knew, McNiece was in water over his waist and his mechanic Kevin Gagnier’s 40-foot sailboat was 12 feet above lake level. “They never had flooding like this when they dredged for the old freighters that came here.”
McNiece recalls Marvin Berry tossing dynamite on the creek in the 1970s to break up the ice. Local folklore recalls fish tugs moving regularly through the harbour to break up the ice and minimize flood damage.
“There isn’t much our boats can do to help with ice jamming,” said Derek Weaver, of Port Stanley’s Weaver Fish Company. His brother Grant Weaver took a tug out and about in the harbour before the ice jam broke up, but “he could barely get through. I couldn’t get away from the dock.
“Maybe if you did it regularly, but once the ice gets as thick as it was, 16-to-18 inches, we can’t do that,” added Derek. “You have to get above that, and we can’t.
“I don’t know what the solution is,” he said. “It’s a creek. It will silt up real fast.” He agreed that dredging may reduce the risk of an ice jam. “Sure, if it (dredging) is free, but I don’t want to pay for it,” said Weaver. “Who wants to pay for it?”
Paul Shipway, Central Elgin’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) and Clerk, said Queen’s Park offers two provincial programs for disaster recovery assistance to municipalities. However he said Disaster Recovery Assistance for Ontarians (DRAO) was not activated by the Province, and Municipal Disaster Recovery Assistance (MDRA) does not apply to Port Stanley’s 2022 flood event.
“Hazard lands, including the floodway and flood fringe, have inherent potential for environmental hazards such as flood susceptibility, instability and other physical conditions that could pose a risk to physical property,” said Shipway. “Kettle Creek Conservation Authority (KCCA) staff work closely with municipal staff prior to and during a flood event by providing information, weather condition updates and tracking the ice jam through the system.
“During a flood event the municipality monitors the conditions, takes precautionary actions (such as road closures) and determines the appropriate response to a flood threat, and if necessary, deploys municipal services,” said Shipway. “Historically, the municipality has not conducted major ice breaking or general proactive measures unless the flood threatens to expand beyond the hazard lands.”
Ed Finlan, a local jazz artist who also serves as Commodore at the Port Stanley Sailing Squadron (PSSS), takes umbrage with the municipality’s position. He wants Central Elgin Council to consider taking more of a leadership role in protecting taxpayers who live or do business along Kettle creek.
For example, Finlan attended Council’s last meeting and asked if the municipality would consider sharing the cost of dredging the creek north of the lift bridge, particularly the shallow area around PSSS docks. Council said no. Finlan is now trying to build a case for a municipal ice breaking program, similar to what’s done in Malahide for Port Bruce.
“I’m not blaming anyone,” said Finlan. “My question is: Why is it that we have all this damage?
“That’s not to say any of this was preventable,” he added, “but can’t we just talk about this?”
The PSSS grounds were barely recognizable after the flood.