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Study indicates Canadian cities not doing enough to lower flood risk, earn ‘C+’ grade

A woman wades through floodwaters on a residential street in the town of Rigaud, Que, west of Montreal, Monday, April 22, 2019.

A study conducted by the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo shows that “most Canadian cities made little progress to limit their risk of flooding over the past five years,” which earned them an average score of C+ in flood-readiness.

Co-author of the study and head of the Intact Centre, Dr. Blair Feltmate, said that flooding is the most expensive extreme weather risk in Canada, followed by fire. But on all levels of government across the country, it’s not an issue central to climate change discussions.

“What draws the most attention by far is … looking at ways to mitigate or lower greenhouse gas emissions. But that almost occupies 90 per cent of the discussion on climate change,” Feltmate told Global News.

“There’s almost only maybe 10 or 15 per cent of the discussion focused on ‘how do we address the extreme weather risk that’s on the ground today,’ and then ‘how do we better prepare for the increasing risk that’s coming in the future?'”

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So for Canada, Feltmate said “the limitation of the climate bill is that we’re not focusing nearly strong enough on preparedness for extreme weather risk.” Especially when flooding, and particularly residential basement flooding, is the biggest cost to the country, according to the study.

“Those costs are going up very rapidly across Canada,” he added.

The general lack of readiness means that if a large-scale flooding event were to occur this spring alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact on Canadians could be “catastrophic,” said Feltmate in a press release. “Many people could find themselves in harm’s way with a basement full of sewer water.”

Last year, the study shows that “insurable losses in Canada reached $2.5 billion, making 2020 the fourth-worst year for insurable claims since record-keeping began in 1983.”

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The study went on to state that “climate change, aging municipal infrastructure and residential housing, and the accelerating loss of protective natural infrastructure such as wetlands contribute to flooding and the rising costs to governments, businesses and homeowners.”

In light of that, Feltmate said cities overall need to “do more work to keep up to climate change.”

He explained that cities need to make sure that their flood risk maps are up to date, and that cities know where the water is going to go when the big storms hit.

“They need guidance on where not to build in areas that are vulnerable to flooding or if they do, to make sure that they put the measures in place, that the flooding isn’t damaging,” Feltmate said.

“And they also need to put more effort into directing water away from locations where people are vulnerable, where housing infrastructure is vulnerable.”

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All these things are being done by cities across the country, Feltmate said, but cities still need to do a better job to look at the vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure to flooding.

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“Because one of the things we know with climate change is that the weather of the past is not a good predictor of the weather of the future. Just because an area hasn’t flooded historically doesn’t mean it can’t going forward because the actual weather itself has changed.”

The study, however, did have some positive news, showing that Edmonton, Regina and Toronto improved their flood-preparedness scores, each achieving a B+, primarily for protecting health-care facilities such as hospitals, clinics and retirement homes.

“These cities also put in place measures to maintain continuity of electricity, telecommunications, water and wastewater services during floods,” the study stated.

Edmonton is also the only city to provide free flood-risk assessments for homeowners through its municipally-owned utility, EPCOR.

Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation
Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation.

In the meantime, Feltmate said cities can easily start limiting flood risks by giving information to homeowners on things they can do around their personal property to lower the chances of water damage when the big storms hit.

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“It’s amazing how simple these things can be.”

Feltmate said it’s as simple as redirecting a downspout or waterspout away from the property’s foundations or putting plastic covers over water wells to make sure that when a big storm hits it doesn’t fill the well.

“The city can give guidance to people as to how to check on all these features and more because that would go a long way in lowering flood costs.”

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On Thursday, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick released a statement in response to the study saying that the city of Fredericton has made progress on flooding preparedness, “but important work remains to better protect citizens’ health.”

Fredericton’s rating changed from ‘C’ in 2015 to ‘B-’ in 2019/20, making it one of only a few cities to show improvement.

The Conservation Council’s Dr. Louise Comeau congratulated Fredericton for improving its overall score, but notes “important work remains to further protect citizens and homeowners from the cost, both physical and mental, of extreme flooding — especially in light of back-to-back historic floods in 2018 and 2019.”

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In particular, Comeau said Fredericton should introduce programming to help homeowners install backflow valves, as Moncton has done.

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According to Comeau, Moncton is installing backflow technology on its sewer lines — “a smart move — but citizens should also be supported in flood proofing their homes.”

According to a press release from the university, the municipalities’ scores were calculated based on detailed interviews with 53 municipal officers responsible for managing floods and emergency services across the 16 largest municipalities.

Respondents included representatives of municipal governments such as city managers, directors and senior planners, and in some cases with representatives of public utilities and conservation authorities who had relevant expertise.