Lake Huron Coastline
It’s hard to talk about Huron County without its namesake Lake Huron creeping into the conversation. The lake is a powerful force and its influence is felt over everything from the weather, to tourism, to agriculture, to the ports and rivers that led to the settling of the area first by the Indigenous people of the land and then European settlers.
The lake and its shoreline are a magnet for visitors, resulting in the county adopting the tagline Ontario’s West Coast in its marketing materials. In fact, as Erinn Lawrie, Executive Director of the Lake Huron Coastal Centre, pointed out, Lake Huron is the third-largest lake in the world and many people don’t realize exactly how big that is until they arrive and look out over that expanse of water. We really do have a coastline for an inland sea here in Huron County.
While many people come to Huron County for our popular beaches, sand beaches account for only 2 or 3% of the coastline. Cobble beaches and coastal forests make up much more of the coast and are important ecosystems for the health of the lake and the land. A very visible example of a cobble beach is St. Christopher’s Beach between the Main Beach and Rotary Cove in Goderich.
Lawrie points out that Goderich is an interesting point on the coast of Huron County, as it packs in many ecosystems and man-made infrastructure in a relatively small distance. With a busy harbour, salt mine, grain elevator, marina and a popular beach front competing with the natural environment that includes the mouth of the Maitland River, it takes a great deal of management to ensure that everyone is working together.
Often, our footprint on the natural environment oversteps its bounds and the ecosystems suffer. For example, our desire for cleared, sandy beaches often actually goes against what’s healthy for the lake’s coast. What we see as weeds are actually plants and grasses that are an important part of the dunes’ protection against erosion and help provide habitat for a number of at-risk or endangered species including the Piping Plover. If we learn to accept a more natural beach, we will be helping to protect the beach from storm surges and actually growing the dune beaches area.
Another emerging challenge in our lake and along our coast is the presence of plastic pollution. The Lake Huron Coastal Centre is working to raise awareness of this threat to our environment and encourage everyone to reduce their use of single-use plastic products.
High water levels are a big topic right now, but the fluctuations that we are experiencing are part of the natural cycle of the lakes. The coastal wetlands actually need the fluctuation to regenerate plant growth and these wetlands in turn provide buffer zones, reducing flooding inland, filter pollutants and nutrients entering the lake from inland sources, reduce erosion by trapping sediment, recharge groundwater by slowing down water entering the lake, store carbon in the soil and vegetation and provide habitat for rare and niche species of plant and animal. While we are in a cycle of high water levels, we are experiencing bluff erosion and flooding, which can be unsettling in built up areas and in cottage country. Setbacks that account for the long-term fluctuations in the high water mark are the best measure in avoiding loss due to erosion. With climate change, we are going to also see fiercer and more frequent storms that exacerbate these water level changes but with planning we can mitigate the damage the wind and waves cause to property located along the coast.
The Lake Huron Coastal Centre is a charitable organization with a mandate to protect and restore Lake Huron's coastal environment, and support a healthy coastal ecosystem through education, restoration, and research projects.
It works with municipalities and property owners to advise them on best practices to maintain a healthy coastline. Over 200 volunteers are registered in their Coast Watchers program, providing a scientific monitoring program of the Lake Huron shoreline. Lawrie is most excited about the Youth Corps education program that gives youth the opportunity to spend time along the shores of Lake Huron learning about diverse ecosystems and dynamics while taking action to conserve and restore these special places.
The website is a remarkable resource full of information on ecosystems, conservation, programs and projects. www.lakehuron.ca
Next time you visit Ontario’s West Coast, you may have a newfound appreciation for American Beachgrass as it sticks out of the dunes near your towel, or understand the cycles that cause your favourite beach to grow or shrink, depending on the year.