Rebuilding Fort McMurray homes on flood plain a 'poor decision,' says hydrologist

John Pomeroy says it is unwise for Fort McMurray and the province to okay rebuilding in a floodplain.

Science clear on need to avoid site vulnerable to major flood, but political will lacking, hydrologist says

Crews begin to work on the burned remains of the Waterways neighbourhood of Fort McMurray, where 238 properties were destroyed. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

One of Canada's top hydrologists is criticizing a decision to allow people who lost their homes during the fire in Fort McMurray, Alta., to rebuild on a known flood plain.

John Pomeroy says it may seem compassionate to allow people in the Waterways subdivision to rebuild, but he stresses it really isn't.

"True compassion would be to keep people's homes out of flood plains," says Pomeroy, director of the Centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan and Canada's research chair in water resources and climate change.

"It is not only property damage but loss of life and health that result from floods, so avoidance is the best policy," 

John Pomeroy, the director of the Centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan, says the science is clear: homes should not be rebuilt on a flood plain. (CBC)

Waterways, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray, was devastated by May's fire. More than half of the properties destroyed were located in a flood hazard zone, which is why in the aftermath of the disaster there was uncertainty about whether residents would be able to rebuild.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo commissioned a survey asking residents what they wanted to do. There was talk of a land swap, where people would be given another lot in a different part of the city, but the majority who responded said they wanted to rebuild in the same location.

At a council meeting Tuesday evening, municipal officials confirmed that residents would be able to rebuild using the same construction standards that their homes met before.

Pomeroy sees that as a very poor decision, given that the area is already prone to flooding, and climate change means there will be more extreme weather events.

"We have had the science to back this up for half a century in Canada. It takes political will to make the difficult, but in the end, wise decision to stay out of the flood plains."

Flood wall to be built

People in Waterways are able to rebuild because the municipality has amended its bylaw regarding development in the subdivision, and there are currently no provincial restrictions in place. The province has indicated that it may enact regulations, but all that is required now is for the community to put in mitigation measures.

An illustration shows the current flood hazard assessment in the Waterways subdivision. (Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo)

The municipality is planning to build a flood wall that can be set up temporarily during seasonal flooding, and in a letter the provincial government say it is adequate as long as the wall is designed to meet a one-in-100 year flood level.

Before residents rebuild, they must sign legal documents indicating that they understand the risks of being on a flood plain, but in the future they could still be covered by provincial disaster assistance if there is a significant flood.

Rolling the dice

Rob MacDonald lost his mobile home in Waterways and is currently staying and working in New Brunswick, but he wants to rebuild as soon as possible.

"For me it is pretty simple. Just put your house back and get on with life. It has taken way too long," he says.

This is all that is left of Parkview Drive in Fort McMurray where Rob Macdonald lived in a mobile home. He's willing to 'roll the dice' and rebuild on a flood plain. (Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo)

MacDonald moved to Waterways in 2012, one year before a few dozen homes in Fort McMurray were damaged by flooding.

He said the water came within a metre of his fence line, but it was still a few metres from his home, which was at a higher elevation.

Given that a home he owned in New Brunswick burned down a year before fire also consumed his property in Fort McMurray, he hopes he isn't in for any more bad luck.

"As far as I am concerned, I am just willing to roll the dice and build my house back there as it was, and I can't see there being any issues."

Unpredictable and expensive future

But as flood events across the country become more frequent, it is also becoming increasingly expensive for taxpayers.

Since the year 2000, Pomeroy says, Canada has spent about $1 billion a year because of flood damage. He says flood-plain mapping is uncertain because climate change means the past is no longer a good predictor of future events.

Pomeroy is helping to lead a research initiative called Global Water Futures. It involves a handful of Canadian universities, and part the work is focused on flood forecasting to help communities make better decisions on development.

"If any community in Canada understands the risks that are associated with a changing climate, it has to be Fort Mac," he says.

"They have been terribly unfortunate," Pomeroy says, which is why he stresses that the municipality should seize the opportunity and not simply build all over again in an area at risk. 


Briar Stewart is a correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart