As the winter snowpack melts and fears of spring flooding rise, Canada’s public safety minister Ralph Goodale has a “tough message” for municipalities, homeowners and businesses: build in a flood zone and you could be on your own.
“At some point, you’re going to have to say if people ignore the knowledge base and deliberately rebuild in danger zones, they are going to have to assume their own responsibility for the cost burden,” Goodale said Thursday.
Goodale made the comments in Ottawa when asked by Global News if there’s anything the federal government can do to stop municipalities from building in areas at high risk of flooding.
“After it’s happened once and then twice, and then three times, at some point the taxpayer’s patience runs out,” he said. “So there’s that clear message that has to be delivered.”
And according to Goodale, it’s municipalities that need to heed this message most.
“The right zoning decisions need to be taken,” Goodale said.
“That takes a good deal of local political courage because you’re often talking about some of the most attractive places in which to build,” he said.
“So that’s a bit of a tough message, but you can’t repeatedly go back to the taxpayer and say; oh, it happened again.”
‘Bold decisions’ to deal with flooding
While much of the funding for disaster relief and emergency management comes from the federal government, the decision to build in areas prone to flooding is “largely within the jurisdiction of provinces and municipalities,” Goodale said.
Whether to rebuild in these areas after flooding is also up to municipalities, and according to Goodale, this “very serious issue” is something communities across Canada will increasingly have to deal with as climate change takes hold and as the threat of flooding grows.
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Goodale points to High River, Alta., which in June 2013 experienced devastating flooding with billions of dollars in damage, as an example of the type of decision making that’s needed to protect homes — and by extension, government finances — from the catastrophic effects caused by flooding.
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According to Goodale, the community made the tough decision not to rebuild in the most high-risk areas after the 2013 floods.
“Other municipalities have not taken those bold decisions,” he said.
In addition to making “bold decisions,” Goodale said communities across Canada are benefiting from federal infrastructure spending targeted at flood relief. And while the Liberals have committed up to $2 billion to such programs, Goodale admits far more will be needed in the future.
Because, Goodale said, “the size of this problem is just very, very large.”
Billions in difficult or impossible-to-insure properties
So how big is the problem of homes and other properties built in areas prone to flooding?
According to a 2016 Parliamentary Budget Office report, flooding caused $12.5 billion in damages in Canada between 2005 and 2014 — by far the biggest cause of disaster relief spending.
The federal government’s share of paying for these disasters was nearly $3.5 billion.
But as the feds seek to get out of the business of flood relief, the notion that this level of funding will exist in the future is far from certain.
According to Craig Stewart, head of federal affairs with the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the percentage of Canadian properties that are either difficult or impossible to insure because of risks from flooding is between 10 and 15 per cent. Stewart says the value of these properties is easily in the billions.
Like Goodale, he believes communities should be encouraged not to build or rebuild in areas known to be at high risk of flooding. He also thinks government bailouts for flood victims could soon be a thing of the past.
“Municipalities have been incented to build in flood plains in the past due to the tax revenue that such attractive locations afford,” Stewart said. “Now it’s all too clear what the consequences of those decisions are.”
“We believe municipalities should follow the lead of High River and revert high-risk land either to wetlands or to park areas, where it can still enjoy appropriate use, but where these people won’t be losing their possessions and homes when the next flood comes,” he said.
Stewart said Canada’s insurance industry has been working with federal and provincial governments — including conversations with Goodale’s office — on ways to provide insurance to high-risk properties. This could include a model similar to that in the United Kingdom where private insurers and governments work together to create a special class of government-backed insurance plans, he said.
According to Stewart, a possible solution to this insurance problem is still at least a year away.
But as Canadians wait to see just how high flood waters will rise this spring, this solution may not come soon enough.
Global News contacted the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, but a response to questions could not be provided in time for deadline.