On Nov. 15, 2021, Kevin Vilac’s phone started ringing at 4 a.m. He was needed at work — urgently.
The Coldwater River in B.C. had breached its banks and threatened to overwhelm the city of Merritt’s wastewater treatment plant. Vilac, the chief water operator for the city, rushed to the site to find the lower level of the plant inundated with water.
“The worst flood I’d been through prior to this was the flood in 2018 from the Nicola River, and in comparison, it was nothing. It was a mere trickle compared to what we just went through,” he says.
The force of the river grew so powerful that it carved a new route through the city, washing away roads, bridges and homes.
Vilac and his small team scrambled to protect key equipment, barricading doors with gravel and make-shift dikes made from ladders and bubble wrap, but the frantic efforts could not prevent the water system’s collapse. By the morning, sewage-filled water covered the streets of Merritt. With no running water nor the ability to flush a toilet, an evacuation order went out for the entire city of more than 7,000 people.
By all accounts, no one in Merritt expected the Coldwater River to flood. The city had been targeting its flood protection efforts towards the other river that borders the town: the Nicola.
The November storm was a stark reminder that human-caused climate change is making the weather more severe and unpredictable. Just months earlier, Merritt suffered multiple wildfires — the product of drought conditions and a heat wave that blanketed the southern Interior — setting the stage for a higher risk of mudslides and flooding.
There are many ways climate change will manifest itself in Canada: wildfires, extreme heat, hail and wind storms, permafrost loss. But the most frequent and costly natural disaster in Canada is flooding. A warming and increasingly volatile climate is causing a rise in sea levels and more intense rainfall. Combine that with decades of paving over wetlands and forests — nature’s sponges — and you have all the ingredients for catastrophic flooding.
At risk is the country’s most important infrastructure. That’s not just our roads and railways; it’s electricity, fuel, water and food supply — the basic necessities of life. Disruption of a single infrastructure can set off a domino effect to disaster. For example, if a city loses power, it could jeopardize food storage, temperature control and telecommunications. In short, it could mean the difference between weathering a storm and succumbing to one.
Canadians are already witnessing changes in the water cycle and the consequences of it. The November B.C. floods are on track to become the most costly natural disaster in the province’s history. The federal government has sent a historic $5 billion to B.C. for flood recovery efforts, but the total cost is likely to be much higher as officials continue to assess the scale of the destruction. That’s shifting the conversation on climate change from one of ‘how do we slow down warming’ to ‘how do we live with climate change.’
Climate change mitigation (reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) and adaptation (actions to limit damage from extreme weather events) go hand in hand, experts say, but historically, the government of Canada hasn’t weighed both equally.
“Up until just recent years, 98 per cent of discussion on the climate file has focused on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, which is the smart thing to do, and I’m fully in favor of that. But we’ve done so to the exclusion of talking about adaptation,” says Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo.
Every five years, Feltmate assesses how well-adapted — or prepared — Canada’s 16 largest cities are for a major flood. In 2015, the average grade was a C+. Five years later, that average remained unchanged. It was an uninspiring result, but one thing that stood out was how vulnerable cities’ critical infrastructure was.
“People are starting to realize the costs of ignoring the reality of the flood risk. You can only cheat the system for so long before it catches up to you. And now we’re seeing where it’s catching up to us,” he says, referencing the recent floods in Western and Atlantic Canada.
Government flood maps, which are used to identify areas that may be at risk of flooding, are 20 years out of date on average, existing infrastructure is vulnerable due to decades of underinvestment, and as the population increases, development is still happening in flood-prone areas, another national study found.
All of the above falls within local governments’ wheelhouses. Municipalities are responsible for managing infrastructure assets and essential services, such as drainage systems and drinking water. They’re responsible for deciding where things get built and how they’re built. On top of all of that, they are also tasked with flood preparedness.
The problem is, local governments, especially smaller ones, don’t have the resources or budgets to implement robust climate change adaptation plans on their own. Upgrading drainage systems, constructing a dyke, or flood-proofing essential services can come with multimillion-dollar price tags, so they have to look elsewhere for funding.
When Don Iveson, the former mayor of Edmonton, embarked on a mission to transform the city’s flood preparedness in the wake of the historic 2013 Calgary floods, he knew that they’d need federal dollars.
It’s a ‘pay me now, pay me later’ situation, Iveson says. “No one’s asking right now how much does it cost to restore highway connectivity in B.C. or get people back into their homes, but reacting to those disasters is incredibly expensive.”
The cost of the catastrophic flooding in Calgary and parts of southern Alberta has totalled more than $5 billion across all three levels of government. As of March 2021, six of the top 10 costliest Canadian natural disasters happened in Alberta.
“We got the clear message that the weather is continuing to change, the storms are more intense, and that we need, as Albertans, to all be thinking about this,” he says, adding that Edmonton is particularly exposed to the effects of climate change due to how far north the city is.
Iveson worked with the city council and the local utility, EPCOR, to develop a 20-year plan for flood-proofing homes and critical buildings, as well as creating green infrastructure that will help prevent overland flooding in residential areas.
In 2019, the city received $53 million from the federal government’s Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund (DMAF). With it, the city has built new dry ponds in flood-prone neighbourhoods, which divert and store water in the event of a flood. It’s also flood-proofing two water treatment facilities that sit alongside the North Saskatchewan River. The two plants provide drinking water to a third of the province’s population.
“Just imagine if you lost your water infrastructure in a city like this. Where does everybody go? So you can’t even allow for that possibility,” Iveson says.
Edmonton is also the only city in Canada that provides free flood-risk assessments for homeowners through EPCOR. It’s a program that any municipality could introduce, argues Feltmate, and one that will hopefully prevent hundreds of flooded basements the next time a big storm hits.
Iveson acknowledges that the upgrades are not going to come cheap. EPCOR’s overall plan comes with a price tag of $1.6 billion and Edmontonians are paying for it in their utility bills. But Iveson is confident they’ll see a return on their investment.
“It’s going to save us billions of dollars in insurance premiums and avoidable losses, as well as a lot of heartache and a lot of disruption to families and businesses,” he says.
By all accounts, Edmonton is an adaptation success story and all it took was political will, a forward-thinking utility and federal support. Which raises the question: could every municipality do what Edmonton did?
“The challenge is the way funding is managed in Canada,” Lilia Yumagulova, a resilience expert who specializes in community resilience planning for climate change.
One of the most significant initiatives the federal government has created to date is the program that helped Edmonton, the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund. In 2018, the government committed $2 billion over 10 years toward infrastructure projects to help communities build resilience against natural disasters.
Already, nearly $2 billion has been allocated for 69 large-scale infrastructure projects across the country, according to Infrastructure Canada. The demand for the program was so high that last year, they topped up the fund, adding an additional $1.4 billion.
But several resilience experts Global News spoke to said the fund is a drop in the bucket. It’s estimated that $5.3 billion is needed every year to prepare municipal infrastructure for the more extreme weather ahead, according to a 2019 report by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
“There is a huge resilience finance deficit,” says Yumagulova. “So the whole funding and financing system is stacked against municipalities to the point where municipalities are competing against each other.”
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities also recently called on parliament to “scale up” investments in disaster mitigation and adaptation to help local governments shoulder the burden.
The DMAF is only one piece of the government’s work on climate change adaptation, Infrastructure Canada spokesperson Zoltan Csepregi said in an email. The ministry says it has several programs in place that support municipalities in infrastructure resilience, each with a slightly different focus.
The federal government has also begun work on some important first steps: developing flood maps that will show the areas of the country that are most vulnerable to flooding; updating the national building codes that could change the rules for how and where things are built; and developing Canada’s first-ever national adaptation strategy. But it’s all still in the works.
Csepregi noted that several federal departments have a hand in adaptation: Public Safety, Environment and Climate Change, Natural Resources, Health Canada, Indigenous Services, to name a few. (Provinces and territories also have their own initiatives)
“Climate change adaptation requires a whole-of-government approach,” Csepregi wrote.
But for Feltmate, the current patchwork approach is hindering progress on adaptation.
“The problem is there is nobody at the senior level coordinating all of these efforts,” he says. “I believe this is one of the things we should be doing with great haste is putting someone in charge of the file at the various levels: federally, provincially and municipally.”
A recent government-commissioned report backs this up: “Disciplinary and bureaucratic silos often lead to inefficient use of resources and a lack of coordination and alignment” which impedes progress on resilience.
It’s been two and a half months since the Coldwater River overwhelmed the city of Merritt, but it’s still too early to know the full cost of the damages. So far, $10 million has been spent just for the evacuation and emergency response, says Mayor Linda Brown. With most residents back in their homes, Brown has begun thinking about what can be done to prevent another disaster of this scale.
Building a dyke system around the Coldwater River, perhaps, or a dam. Moving the wastewater treatment plant away from the river’s banks, which would entail a new system design potentially.
“We’ve also got infrastructure that needs to be upgraded, we have people that are living in areas now that are a bigger flood plain than we could have ever imagined, so we really have to talk about moving some of them to drier land,” she says. The small city of 7,000 can’t do it alone, Brown stresses. “There’s a whole lot of dollars that we can’t even fathom at this point.”
The province has agreed to help develop a plan to “build back better.” That is, rebuilding to withstand future extreme weather events, as well as help to relocate people off the floodplain.
“The big elephant in the room that we’re not really beginning to consider yet in Canada, but we will have to at some point, is that certain places will become uninhabitable,” says Yumagulova. “It just doesn’t make sense to spend that many taxpayers dollars to bail them out event after event.”
At least 800,000 homes – nearly eight per cent of all residential properties – are located in flood-prone areas. The federal government has convened a taskforce to plan how it could relocate the most at-risk homes. It’s on track to report its findings by the end of spring 2022, according Public Safety Canada.
Relocating is something that the Shackan Indian Band is seriously weighing. The Nicola River and tributaries from four other major watersheds criss-cross Shackan reserve lands, located 40 kilometers west of Merritt. When the flood hit in the evening of Nov. 14, Chief Arnold Lampreau went house to house knocking on doors to evacuate the 45 people who live there.
“I was the last one out,” Lampreau says. “I was going through a foot and a half of water in my car.”
The floodwaters took out bridges, roads and Highway 8 that connects the community to Merritt. Had Lampreau not acted immediately, people could have been trapped on the reserve without water or power. He says they lost 88 hydro poles in the flood.
“That horrific event took out a lot of roads and a number of houses. A couple of my friends have lost their houses completely,” he says. The flood also washed out the economic driver of the community: the farmland along the Nicola River.
The entire on-reserve community has now been displaced for 80 days and Lampreau thinks it could be months until they’re able to return. Work on restoring the roads, power and wells is ongoing, but COVID-19 and the Omicron variant have complicated the recovery efforts.
“A lot of us are tired. We’re tired and worried,” Lampreau says. “We’d like to go home.”
But even when they’re able to return, the community faces another daunting challenge. The cascading disasters of the heat wave, wildfires and flooding in 2021 have impacted their ability to hunt, fish and gather traditional medicines.
The level of devastation the community experienced this year has made Lampreau reconsider where “home” is. Rather than investing millions of dollars in adaptation measures, Lampreau says he will be asking Indigenous Services Canada about another solution: expanding the reserve lands so they can relocate away from the floodplain.
“We’ve been put there by the government,” Lampreau says. “Our people are tired of living on these little postage stamp-sized reserves. We need to have some lands where we can actually have better economic viability, a better way of life.”
Shackan, Merritt and Edmonton face different challenges and flood risks, but Lampreau, Brown and Iveson agree the work on adaptation can’t wait.
The urgency is warranted. The costs of extreme weather events — economic, social, and environmental — are going up and outpacing the work being done on adaptation. A typical storm or flood in the ‘70s cost roughly $8.3 million in total losses. Today, that number has risen to $112 million, a 1,250 per cent increase, according to a report from the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices.
Last year, severe weather caused $2.1 billion in insured damages, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada. By the end of the century, the cost for damage to homes and buildings due to flooding alone is projected to surge to $14 billion annually.
“It’s our taxes. Our governments, and thereby us, are spending billions of dollars annually that we don’t have to,” says Ryan Ness, the lead adaptation researcher at the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices.
There’s a statistic that experts in the adaptation world love to repeat: For every one dollar invested in adaptation, six dollars is saved. That figure varies slightly depending on the context of study, but the findings are clear: adaptation yields benefits that greatly exceed the costs.
“Adaptation is the gift that keeps on giving,” says Feltmate.
Beyond government efforts, individuals can also take action to protect their homes from flooding.
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