Flood victims, river manager at odds over water warnings

Flooded residents say river authorities didn't do enough to prepare them before waters started rising, but the regulator that manages the river says it warned of rising levels and potential flooding weeks ago.

Could be end of June before Ottawa River returns to normal levels, regulator says

Georges Losier (left) and Roland Lafrance have been helping neighbours in the flooded area around Leo Lane in Cumberland, Ont. (Stu Mills, CBC)

Frank Roberge says he's "peeved," and he's blaming the people who regulate the Ottawa River and its hydro systems for caring more about making electricity and money than saving homes from flooding.

"They have all the tools to predict how high the water's going to be," Roberge said at a public meeting in Cumberland this week.

"If we'd been warned, we could have been prepared."

Similar complaints have been voiced and anger has been stirred at gatherings across the flooded region this week as people who've lost their homes and belongings look for answers.

Warnings issued in April

Scientists at the Ottawa River Regulation Secretariat — part of the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board — monitor the river's flow and reservoirs, using modeling and predictions to provide protection against flooding.

The regulator is just one of the agencies facing blame for flooding, along with politicians, municipalities and the military.

Michael Sarich, a senior water resources engineer with the Ottawa River Regulation Secretariat, said the organization did warn residents about possible flooding ahead of time. (CBC)
Michael Sarich, a senior water resources engineer with the secretariat, disagrees with the criticism.

The regulator was alerting the public about the rising river and potential flooding weeks ago, he said, adding that there were daily communications with all relevant provincial and municipal authorities.

According to Sarich, his office produced a news release on April 28, warning water levels would be high and that more rain was coming May 1 and 2.

"We began a supplementary document that we never have done before, predicting flood peak. So on May 2, we began posting publicly on our website what the expected peak was to be, and so this is almost a week's lead time," Sarich said.

Rumours of empty reservoirs

But with hundreds of homes still surrounded by water and with the regulator's warning that the river won't be back to normal levels until late June, residents of flooded homes are still looking for answers.

On Tuesday, the regulator was the target at a meeting in Fitzroy Harbour as one resident demanded answers from city councillors and Ottawa's mayor.

"Why aren't they here? Why isn't the Ottawa River [Regulation] Planning Board here? They should be," the man said.

Another Ottawa resident whose home was flooded in Fitzroy Harbour reached out to CBC News asking for an investigation into the regulator.

Michael Steeves said he wants answers as to why the Ottawa River's northern reservoirs were empty while the southern portion of the watershed was under water.

"My home, property and life savings are being destroyed. You are dumping too much water again! Your sensors are messed up or your models are old and unresponsive," Steeves wrote in an email to the regulator.

This is more misinformation, Sarich said.

"Northern reservoirs are reaching their maximum levels. But what they've done is hold back as much water as possible to alleviate downstream flooding," he said.

100 mm of rain 'an unprecedented event'

In terms of the Gatineau River reservoirs being low, Sarich said if dam operators had returned to summer elevations, communities like Wakefield would be totally flooded.

The real problem, according to Sarich, was so much rain in such a short period of time last week.

Colin Rennie, a hydrology expert and chair of the civil engineering department at the University of Ottawa, said the real problem is homes and cottages on floodplains. (CBC)

"Flood forecasting is strongly tied to the weather forecast," said Sarich. "Through Thursday, Friday, some locations received 100 millimetres of rain, really an unprecedented event."

Colin Rennie, a professor and chair of civil engineering at the University of Ottawa and a hydrology expert, said that from what he's observed, the regulator followed standard procedure.

"I think they did a pretty good job giving people warning that a flood was coming," said Rennie.

Home locations the issue, says prof

The models the Ottawa River Regulation Secretariat are using are at the current standard, based on those developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rennie said.

The real issue is that people chose to build homes and cottages within the flood line, he added.

"If you build a house and you want it to last for 50 years, if it's within a 100-year flood plain, there's a 43 per cent chance of that house being flooded within those 50 years, which to me says it's pretty likely to happen," said Rennie.

Ottawa River levels are now receding, but it could be the end of June before they return to normal, Sarich said.