One way to battle future flooding: stop building on flood plains, say experts

As the battle to protect homes from flooding continues across the country, questions are being asked about whether it's time to reconsider regulations that allow developers to build on flood plains.

Goodale says building on land prone to flooding will be brought up with provincial counterparts at May meeting

Julie Theriault (right) and Jean-Francois Perrault push a canoe as they help in the flooded area of Gatineau, Que., on Sunday. It's estimated the federal government, over the next five years, will spend $673 million a year on rebuilding after flooding. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

As the battle to protect homes from flooding continues across the country, questions are being asked about whether it's time to reconsider regulations that allow developers to build on flood plains.

Jason Thistlethwaite, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo's faculty of environment, says the problem is that municipalities set zoning regulations and collect property tax revenue but do not pay for rebuilding costs after natural disasters.

"The municipality really doesn't have an incentive to go in and use land-use planning and building codes and communications strategies to tell people that they are at risk of flooding, particularly given that most of the revenue comes from development, it comes from property taxes." Thistlethwaite said. "So they face a real conflict of interest.

"Poor land-use planning at the local level basically goes unpunished and in fact gets rewarded with additional disaster assistance from the province, from the federal government."

Last February, the Parliamentary Budget Office released a report estimating that over the next five years the federal government will dole out an estimated $902 million a year in disaster-related relief to provinces and territories.

Jason Thistlethwaite, assistant professor at the University of Waterloo, says most homeowners in at-risk flooding areas don't realize it. (Jason Thistlethwaite/Twitter)

Of that, $673 million a year will be spent on rebuilding after flooding — about 75 per cent of the annual spend.

The money comes from Public Safety Canada through the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements, or DFAA, created in 1970 to reimburse provinces for expenses related to damage from disasters natural or man-made.

The report also notes that in the ten years from 2005 to 2014 (which included the 2013 Calgary floods) 82 per cent of all DFAA funding went to Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, almost all of which was a result of flooding.

Thistlethwaite says his research shows 75 percent of people who live in high-risk flood areas don't even know they are at risk.

He says the government needs to advise people of at-risk areas and then produce flood-risk maps to guide future developments instead of relying on current maps, which he says are outdated.

An issue of zoning

It is an approach that the Insurance Bureau of Canada's Craig Stewart says should be addressed, as the impacts of climate change continue to deliver variable weather patterns.

"It makes no sense now to be building homes in harm's way," Stewart said.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says the federal government expects an increasing number of natural disasters to occur more quickly and for them to be larger and more costly in the coming years.

He said the issue of building on land prone to flooding is an issue that has bedevilled municipal and provincial governments since "time immemorial."

Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale provided an update today on the flooding across Canada. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"Sometimes in normal, dry conditions these are very attractive premium locations, and then something like this happens," Goodale said. "It boils down to zoning issues and it's something that governments are going to have to examine very closely: how they protect people who choose voluntarily to build in areas that are vulnerable to these kinds of problems.

"This is one of the issues that will be discussed among federal, provincial and territorial ministers and the end of the month at our emergency management meeting," Goodale said.