Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Flooding Happens; it's only a matter of time!

By Mike Walters, Source Water Protection Manager, Integrated Watershed Management Director, Conservation Ontario 

It’s been less than two months since severe flooding devastated Calgary and much of southern Alberta and closer to home disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of Toronto area residents, stranding motorists and leaving homes without power.   For most people who were not significantly affected, these events are already fading and becoming a distant memory.  However, for those who lost loved ones, homes and their possession the loss and suffering continues as they try to return their lives to some semblance of normalcy. 

These catastrophic events remind us of what could happen to countless people that continue to live within floodplains throughout Canada.  One thing that has always bewildered me about human behavior is that despite repeated incidents of flooding, many people continue to deny that it could happen to them.  Comments like “it won’t happen here” or “it won’t happen again” are common when dealing with people who reside or work within flood prone areas.  However, these events have taught us with certainty that flooding happens; it is only a matter of time. 

Compounding this risk is the increased number of extreme weather events that are occurring across Canada.     As part of their hazard management programs, Conservation Authorities (CAs) in Ontario monitor and report on the intensity of storm events which are characterized by their return period measured in years.  For example, a 100 year storm is expected on average to occur no more than once every hundred years.  What CAs are actually finding is that large storm events are occurring far more frequently than the 100 year return period, sometimes within as little as three to five years. 

Fortunately for its residents, Ontario has been a leader in flood planning and hazard management.  Conservation Authorities and the Province apply a multi-faceted approach to meeting the challenge of flood events. They rely on structural measures (dams, dykes, and conveyance channels) which keep water away from people,  as well as programs and policies (flood forecasting and warning, floodplain mapping and regulations, and flood relief programs) to keep people away from water.    

While much has been accomplished there is a growing concern amongst Conservation Authorities that our  ability to maintain and improve on this level of management and protection is threatened.  Even though the documented frequency of flooding events is increasing the investment in natural hazard structures, tools, and programs are at an all time low.   Over the last decade Conservation Authorities have seen their funding to maintain flood management programs decreased by more than 80%.  Conservation Authorities are convinced that if this trend of insufficient funding continues it will eventually compromise their ability to protect lives and property during flood events.   

We cannot let this happen.  We’re just hearing about the costs of these events. Alberta’s Premier reports that Calgary flood damages are estimated at $8 billion. The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates Toronto flood damages at $850 million. How often can we afford this? 

Some significant rethinking and reinvestment is required by all levels of government to ensure that flood management tools are updated and infrastructure is improved to meet our obligation to protect people and property.  Updated floodplain mapping, maintenance to flood control structures, and developing improved emergency management systems is essential.  The advantages of this approach can be further leveraged with complementary practices such as stormwater management, green infrastructure, and watershed stewardship initiatives which also contribute significantly to building local watershed resilience, enabling Ontario communities to adapt more effectively to increasing flooding challenges. 

Now is the time to pay some serious attention to what has been happening and to remember that floods happen; it’s only a matter of time.

Monday, 18 March 2013

A Check Up on the Health of Ontario's Watersheds

By Charley Worte, Interim General Manager, Conservation Ontario

In recognition of Canada Water Week, Ontario’s Conservation Authorities are launching a series of Watershed Report Cards that provide us with a picture on the health of a number of Ontario watersheds. More than a dozen are available today on the website with more to come throughout this year.

Conservation Authorities, in partnership with other agencies, collect a wide variety of water and environmental data and, while most Conservation Authorities have issued reports on watershed conditions before, this is the first time that report cards have used standardized analysis and reporting methods. This will allow Ontario residents to get a province wide picture of the health of our watersheds.

The responsibility for managing watershed natural resources is shared by many organizations including provincial ministries, municipalities, citizens groups, watershed residents as well as the Conservation Authorities themselves. These report cards provide insight into how we are collectively doing using three resource categories: surface water quality, forest conditions and groundwater quality.

The grades of the first batch of report cards are sobering. While there are some As and Bs there are also a lot of Ds and Cs, primarily in areas of intensive land use such as the Greater Toronto area or in areas with extensive agriculture. This is to be expected since we know that intensive land use has a significant impact on our rivers and natural areas.

One of the biggest threats we need to tackle is storm water runoff in both urban and rural areas, which can carry pollutants into rivers and lakes and cause erosion and flooding. We also need to do a better job of protecting and restoring natural areas.

The good news is we know what the solutions are.

To start with we can do more watershed planning, monitoring and reporting to identify specific problems and target the most effective solutions. In urban areas we can be smarter in how we develop land by implementing Low Impact Development which prevents storm water runoff and instead, keeps water on the landscape and cycling through the water cycle. Storm water runoff is polluting rivers, creeks and streams, and ultimately impacting the Great Lakes. In rural areas  farmers and other landowners, with the help of various agencies, are  implementing stewardship practices that reduce impacts, and with additional support they can do more.

Why should this matter to you? A healthy watershed provides us with safe drinking water, clean air, access to green areas and outdoor activities, and provides a foundation for a good part of Ontario’s economy.  

Healthy ecosystems and biodiversity build local watershed resilience, promoting healthier Great Lakes and helping us adapt to one of the biggest and growing challenges we face – climate change.

While these Watershed Report Cards provide a snapshot of how we are doing now, their real value will come in the future when subsequent report cards will allow us to compare trends over time to find out how effective our efforts are.

In the meantime, take the opportunity to explore these reports cards to learn about your local watershed and then talk to your local Conservation Authority. If you happen to live in an A or B watershed the Conservation Authority can give you ideas on how you can keep it that way. If it’s a C or a D, don’t worry, they can tell you what you can do to help improve the grade next time.