Ottawa River residents prepare for flooding — this time, without volunteers

With rain in the forecast, residents in some low-lying areas of Ottawa are preparing for localized spring flooding — but the major co-ordinated volunteer effort that saved many people's homes last year won't happen in 2020 because of COVID-19.

'We got through OK last year, but not without the help of tons and tons of people'

Shannon Groves says she and her husband relied volunteers last year to fill and place sandbags around their home — something that won't likely happen this year due to COVID-19 physical distancing measures. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

As some Ottawa residents prepare this weekend for localized spring flooding, they also have another problem to contend with — a shortfall of volunteers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Environment Canada is calling for rain across the region over the next two days, while the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board (ORRPB) is forecasting that river levels could rise three centimetres to a height of 59.62 metres above sea level in the Britannia area between Sunday and Monday.

"I'd be lying if I said I had no concerns," said Shannon Groves, who lives in Buckham's Bay in Ottawa's west end.

"After what we went through, especially just last year, that was something I just don't know if we could do again."

She and her husband built a retaining wall along the edge of their property last summer, and have plans to lift the foundation of their home later this summer.

The Ottawa River is creeping closer to Shannon Groves' home in Buckham's Bay. (Submitted by Shannon Groves)

But as Groves watches the river rise, she's worried about how COVID-19 will affect their ability to keep their home safe. 

Last year, they needed 30,000 sandbags to protect their property.

"We got through OK last year, but not without the help of tons and tons of people," she said.

"I know there's no such thing as people helping this year [because of] the virus. So you know, I think it would be pretty tough to save our property this year if it came down to it."

Sandbags being delivered

The City of Ottawa has been steadily delivering filled sandbags — there are more than 200,000 left from last year, along with about 381,000 unfilled bags — to at-risk areas like Fitzroy Harbour, Constance Bay, Dunrobin, Cumberland, and parts of Bay ward.

But unlike past years, volunteers won't be available to fill or distribute them, said West Carleton-March Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, whose ward was hit hard by the floods of 2017 and 2019

"Because of COVID-19, we can't just drop a pile of sand and ... ask residents to help themselves like we normally do," said El-Chantiry, who's also overseeing the city's flood prevention efforts.

City crews have been delivering bundles of sandbags to low-lying areas along the Ottawa River, but the social distancing measures in place due to COVID-19 means there won't be a co-ordinated volunteer effort this year to stack them around threatened homes. (Eli El-Chantiry/Facebook)

'Significant rainfall' possible

The good news is that an early spring, combined with warm days and cool nights, has meant much of the snowpack has already melted, said Larissa Holman, director of science and policy at Ottawa Riverkeeper.

That means the conditions are already considerably different than in 2019.

However, the next two days could bring "significant rainfall," she said — and the amount of rain, and how often it occurs, is harder to predict.

"You never can really tell what flood levels are going to look like until we start to see the rainfall coming. And if there is significant rainfall, that's when we see water levels rise quickly," Holman said.

Holman said while water levels along the Ottawa River are expected to rise above normal, causing minor flooding along the shoreline and some roadways, she doesn't expect widespread flooding.

The ORRPB said Saturday that "low-lying areas prone to flooding" from east of Pembroke, Ont., to Montreal will be the most susceptible to rising water levels, but few houses or buildings will be affected.

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