Analysis

More flooding, more questions for Toronto politicians

Hard rain returned to Toronto this past week, and with the floodwaters came serious questions about how to handle the city's increasingly weird and wild weather.

After streets and streetcars flooded this week, what can city hall do before the next storm hits?

Streetcars got stuck in deep water on King Street West during Tuesday night's storm, along with many other vehicles. (Shlomi Amiga/The Canadian Press)

Hard rain returned to Toronto this past week, and with the floodwaters came serious questions about how to handle the city's increasingly weird and wild weather.

Tuesday's storm was definitely intense, but hardly unique. Basements were again drenched. Power went out. Beaches were covered in super-gross trash from sewer overflows. Some drivers, bizarrely, insisted they could successfully drive through deep water, only to watch their cars float away.

We've seen this all before, and we'll see it again.

Deluge causes power outages, washed-out underpasses and submerged vehicles 1:03

The city's own resiliency office — tasked with preparing Toronto for the "shocks" of a changing climate — projects the future will get a lot wetter, with fewer but far more intense storms.

Politicians can't control these weather patterns, but they are expected to mitigate their effects.

However, Toronto's recent history with this kind of thing suggests finding political support for new measures designed to address extreme weather won't be easy.

Toronto considers a stormwater charge

Toronto is expecting to see more and more extreme weather in the coming years. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press)

Last year, Mayor John Tory pushed council to reject further consideration of a new stormwater charge designed to fund infrastructure to better handle floodwaters.

The stormwater charge was a response to both increased flooding, and a funding problem.

Traditionally, the city pays for infrastructure improvements to water-related stuff through the revenue it takes in from the water bills paid by residents and businesses. But over the last decade, per-capita water use in the city has declined — thanks in part to those PSAs reminding you to turn off the tap while brushing your teeth.

Less water use means lower water bills, which means less money for the city.

Faced with this, and more than a billion dollars in water-related projects in need of funding, councillors had two choices: raise water rates, or implement a new charge designed to make up the difference.

The stormwater charge was the latter approach. It was to be based on the amount of hard surface area on a property, justified by the fact that vast paved areas and non-green roofs contribute greatly to run-off that strains the sewer system and can result in flooding.

Importantly, the charge would also serve as an incentive for property owners to reduce their hard surface area.

Faced with a big bill for their share of storm run-off, property owners might think twice about having a giant parking pad, for example. A win-win.

Politics sink change

Then politics got in the way.

Flooding in Toronto is a complex issue due to problems with infrastructure and the logistics of where to divert water. More money is needed for upgrades and, with an older city core, options for moving water are limited. 1:41

As city staff ran public consultations and developed a plan for rolling out the stormwater charge, Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti branded it a "roof tax" and began marshalling opposition.

It likely helped his cause that the stormwater charge would hit suburban homeowners and large commercial property owners more than condo- and apartment-dwellers, many of whom were projected to actually see a decrease in their overall water bill as the result of the move.

Tory went against the new charge, noting at the time even the head of Toronto Water said the plan needed more work.

His campaign website now boasts: "The mayor also killed a proposal for a separate stormwater charge — the so-called roof tax — that would have increased water bills for many residents in the city."

Mississauga beats Toronto

Down the highway, Toronto's neighbour did things differently.

In 2015, the City of Mississauga successfully introduced a stormwater charge. It's projected to bring in $42.5 million this year, with $2.3 million of that being directed back to property owners who install green roofs, permeable pavement or take other measures to reduce storm runoff.

Faced with the same weather and the same problem, Mississauga made a proactive move.

Toronto, meanwhile, tends to struggle with the cost of change. And so the city clings to the status quo, hoping it will stay afloat when the floods come again.

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