Ford’s strategy will leave homeowners under water, United Shoreline Ontario warns
With all the Great Lakes at or near record levels and spring runoff well underway, home and business owners of lakefront properties are praying for a dry spring with no windy days that will push the high water ashore.
Residents in Essex County near Windsor have already experienced flooding and the municipality has declared a flood emergency. Lake Ontario remains above is level at this time last year and conservation authorities in Brighton and Cobourg have issued flood warnings. But the International Joint Commission’s (IJC) forecast is that if the spring is not too wet it won’t reach serious flood levels.
Lake Ontario’s water level as of April 26 was 247.21 feet above sea level, while a year ago it was 247.11 feet. However, the level has not been increasing rapidly and the IJC believes residents won’t face major flooding. Last year, in early June it peaked at 249.08 feet.
Sarah Delicate, who lives on Lake Ontario in Bowmanville, Ont. and is the founder of the residents’ group United Shoreline Ontario, said the Ontario Flood Strategy released on March 9 offers nothing “to help the urgency of 2020 flooding.” She notes the province considers emergency help to be a “local” responsibility.
In a webinar presentation on March 24, Delicate said that John Yakabuski, Ontario’s Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, had called flooding a natural phenomenon.
“There is nothing natural about climate change,” Delicate said. “Calling it natural makes it somehow the responsibility of the people who live in these areas. “
After the floods in 2017 and 2019, “not a single penny of provincial support was given to residents or small businesses on the Lake Ontario or St. Lawrence shoreline,” Delicate says. The province has recently announced millions in grants to help municipalities in Muskoka and the Ottawa valley.
The province says it has streamlined the application process for owners to take steps to protect their waterfront homes and businesses, but Delicate says that “we have heard dozens and dozens of stories that in 2019 along the shoreline the province has not only not streamlined the process but many residents have had permits denied.”
The Ford government has “epically failed the people on Lake Ontario,” Delicate says.
In the eight U.S. states that border the lakes many residents are also busy applying for government assistance to help protect their property — getting ready to place large rocks along the shore, or replace damaged docks.
Down the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, residents can also turn to $450 million in provincial assistance to guard their buildings.
But in Ontario, which has hundreds of kilometres of shoreline along four of the five Great Lakes, the province has looked at the flooding issue and responded with a 42-page report that is long on reviewing policies and strategies.
The TL;DR version of the report — not the province’s problem.
Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government says it’s up to municipalities to respond to any flooding and residents are on their own when it comes to protecting themselves, which is especially troubling this year since COVID-19 restrictions mean they can’t get together to fill and place sandbags.
Last year, Ford’s government slashed the funding for conservation authorities. Before the cuts, the province provided $7.4 million a year to the conservation authorities for flood management programs, said Conservation Ontario, the association representing the 36 authorities. The budget last year cut that by nearly 50%.
But after the 2019 flooding hit the shores of Lake Ontario, Muskoka River and the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, it ordered an independent report on the situation and then developed a new flood strategy. The strategy says flood mitigation, preparation and response is not the province’s responsibility, all that is up to local municipalities and conservation authorities.
The report suggests municipalities have erred in the past by allowing homes and cottages too close to the water, but Ontario doesn’t offer any money to purchase those properties or help homeowners cope.
Conservation Ontario has offered lukewarm support for the new strategy.
“There are a lot of important activities identified in the flooding strategy which we strongly support, such as updating floodplain mapping, increasing public access to current and timely information, as well as better understanding the risks of flooding,” said General Manager Kim Gavine. “However, one piece of the puzzle that is missing is the discussion around resources. Cutting natural hazards provincial funding to conservation authorities in 2019 is very problematic and challenges many CAs and their municipalities to make up for the loss of revenue.”
Gavine said the cost of reducing flooding has to be shared. Ontario needs a funding formula which enables a mix of risk planning, watershed management, infrastructure updating and emergency response. More floods, higher damage cost and increased business and utility disruptions are inevitable.
A 2017 report by the Auditor General that found several problems with emergency management, notes that “growing research about the impact of climate change has focused attention on the increasing likelihood of more frequent and extreme natural hazards.”
It warned that:“Unequal levels of preparedness and support mean that some municipalities may not be adequately prepared to respond if a local emergency arises, resulting in different levels of public safety across the province in the case of an actual emergency. This puts an increased responsibility on the provincial government to come to the aid of the least-prepared areas.”
In a webinar on April 23, MNRF representatives said 10 different ministries are involved in emergency planning and flood response so co-ordinating action is difficult, especially when everyone is working from home. As well, the budget for this year has been delayed due to the pandemic so it’s unclear what actions will take priority.