Ottawa

Flood-monitoring groups absorb cut from province

Ottawa's three local conservation authorities say the loss of half of their provincial funding represents only a small fraction of their total budget. But the lack of commitment, they say, is concerning.

'This work is even more important than it ever has been. We should really be investing more resources into it'

The Rideau River overflowed its banks in Old Ottawa South in April 2017. (Jérôme Bergeron/Radio-Canada)

The three conservation authorities in the Ottawa area may be busy watching water levels and flood dangers this week, but they're also busy trying to fill a hole in their budgets after the province cut their funding in half.

The groups received letters from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry the day after the Ontario budget was tabled this month, telling them their provincial funding was being cut in half.

The provincial funds make up just a small portion of their budgets: since a major cut in 1996, conservation authorities have relied very little on the provincial transfer payments.

The Rideau Valley Conservation Authority will now receive only $125,000  — just over one per cent of its $10.7 million budget — from Ontario in 2019, while South Nation Conservation Authority, in the eastern part of the city, is reduced to $91,000 and Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority, in the west, to $128,000.

The Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority said they've been managing floods on frugal budgets for more than twenty years, with most of their money coming from municipalities, user fees and fundraising.

But the money from the province was used to monitor and manage water levels and warn residents about possible flooding, something on the minds of many residents in the Ottawa area this week.

The cuts will be difficult to absorb, said Sommer Casgrain-Robertson, general manager of the group responsible for the Rideau Valley watershed.

"They're coming at a time, with climate change and the increase of intense weather events, this work is even more important than it ever has been. It's an area where we should really be investing more resources into it."

"It's the commitment that concerns us, with regards to the work that we're doing," agreed Angela Coleman, head of the South Nation Conservation Authority.

3-decade-old floodplain maps updated

Conservation authorities play a prominent role during the spring melt, but they have also been busy updating maps that show which areas are susceptible to a flood at least once a century.

They credit municipalities and the federal government for pushing to keep track of which development areas might be risky for flooding, and for footing the lion's share of the bill to do the work.

The City of Ottawa depends on that mapping when it makes zoning decisions about where new homes should be allowed, and where they shouldn't.

"It's very important that we update that work for today, so that we know that the communities where we will be building... will now be safe," Coleman said.

The Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, for instance, has recently updated the maps for urban Ottawa, many of which hadn't been updated since the 1980s.

Ironically, the provincial government is proposing changes to get conservation authorities to focus even more on their "core mandate" of flood prevention and mapping hazards, even as it withdraws its own funding.

The Ontario government recently unveiled plans to change the laws governing the role conservation authorities play in relation to permits they give out for construction, how the authorities use levies from municipalities, and what work should — or shouldn't be — part of their core mandate.

Conservation authorities say they are still trying to figure out what those changes will mean for them.

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