Why cuts to conservation authorities will make it harder to prevent floods

As communities face flooding, parts of Ontario have declared states of emergencies — shortly after the provincial government cut its funding for conservation authorities' flood management programs in half. Read our interview with a flood policy researcher.

Researcher says many people don't realize the critical role CAs play in flood protection

The small Muskoka-area community of Bracebridge, Ont., declared a state of emergency this week following days of heavy rain that caused rivers and lakes to swell. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

Parts of Ontario have declared states of emergencies for flooding this week — shortly after the province slashed its funding for conservation authorities' flood management programs in half.

But how do Ontario's conservation authorities help manage flooding? What is the impact of these government cuts?

Andrea Minano has spent her career researching floods and helping inform flood policy. Minano is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo, where she runs the Flood Policy Research Group. You can read an abridged and edited version of her interview with CBC Hamilton below.

Andrea Minano is a PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo and research manager with the Flood Policy Research Group. (Submitted)

People might think of conservation areas as places to go camping or hiking. What role do [conservation authorities] play when it comes to flooding?

I think there is a lot of unawareness about what conservation authorities do and what their role is in flood management. Here is Ontario, conservation authorities play a critical role in flood plain management. They map out where flood waters are likely to go in case of a severe flood, and they make sure that new development does not happen within flood plains. 

Another one of their key programs is for flood warnings. They actually monitor river flows and they make sure that when rivers are swelling up, they issue warnings to make sure people are evacuated in time in case of an emergency.

What do we know about the cuts that have happened to the flood programs?

The province has announced that they will be cutting 50 per cent of their contribution to the Conservation Authorities program, particularly for flood management. [Ontario had given $7.4 million to the conservation authorities for flood management.]

That [cut] raises a lot of red flags for me because they have such a critical role in flood management. If we take a step back in time, Ontario experienced a really severe flood in 1954 that killed 81 people [during Hurricane Hazel].

In Toronto alone, on a single street 30 deaths were reported, and it is because people had lived so close to the river. And so conservation authorities began to regulate flood plains after that happened in order to prevent those types of situations happening again.

An image from Hurricane Hazel, where in a matter of hours, rain turned roads into rivers. (Environment Canada )

How much of a contribution does the province make to these programs? Are there other funding sources? 

Conservation authorities receive funding from the province [8 per cent] as well as municipalities  [53 per cent], among other sources. But I think it's important to not normalize the fact that the province has cut these funds, because the conservation authorities have actually seen reduction in their funding since about the mid-90s.

I fear that down the line we'll have a repeat of what happened in 1954, with so many people dying, for the government to realize that they shouldn't have cut funds for these conservation authorities. At the end of the day you need people on site within these organizations to make sure that flood warnings are done, that for example when you get land permits from developers that conservation authorities can put their foot down and actually enforce that regulation to make sure developers are following the rules.

It's still early days, but what would these cuts mean for these programs?

What they mean is that staff won't be available on site maybe, in some cases there might be some layoffs. Conservation authorities also need to update their flood mapping. For example, here in the region of Waterloo we sometimes are having these sudden warming temperatures during seasons that are not expected. 

Would these cuts potentially mean less data or information about these areas?

Yeah, so conservation authorities also model where flood waters would go. So it's particularly critical that we look at that and we update that information more often than before because we are seeing increases in precipitation. Environment Canada has estimated that we will be seeing increases in precipitation across the country as a consequence of climate change. That can also lead to new areas being vulnerable to flooding ... It's very critical we keep on top of that.

Watery roads in Toronto on Friday. (Paul Smith/CBC)

If the government is trying to save money, why not just allocate more money on the years when the flooding is really bad?

I think if we have that reactive approach, what will it take for us to figure it out? Do we need to have a repeat of what happened in 1954, for so many people to go through something so awful for governments to actually realize that we need to have continued investments in this? 

Why do people choose to live in areas where it floods frequently?

A lot of our downtown areas across the province are built on flood plains. For example, in the city of Waterloo. The reason we decided to build there is because those places are legacy developments that happened before the regulations came in place. So conservation authorities … do have special policies that go along with that and they monitor the situations in case of something extreme. 

We not only have to reduce the risk in terms of flood plain regulation, but we also have to manage the consequences for the places that are already built in known flood plains.

Do you think Ontario's flooding problems can ever actually be fully resolved?

It's a tricky question. In Quebec, they are trying to reduce their risk. The disaster assistance program has changed so if you're flooded once government will pay for you to recover, but the second time around they will actually pay for you to move out. So that is a way to reduce the risk in the future because that property would no longer have people living there, and instead they would convert it to something else like parkland or open space. 

But essentially just moving people out of places where there's a lot flooding?

Exactly. For example, some people might have lived somewhere for 20 years and a couple of years ago they got flooded … they thought it was a once in a lifetime. They went back, rebuilt there, and now the floods are happening again in Quebec and they're seeing flooding again. These are kind of the red flags for the government to know we shouldn't be living here anymore.

People walk through a flooded part of rue Jacques-Cartier in Gatineau, Que., April 24, 2019. (CBC)

That must be hard though. People are living in a place for decades and then being told you just can't live here.

I know. Its a really tough decision for government to do, that's why these regulations of land development are so necessary for all the new stuff. So as we continue to build our cities, we're not putting people in areas that we know that flood because down the line governments will have to deal with situations of moving people out of there.