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Governments ponder how to weather the next big storm

A man rides his bicycle through a flood on the Don Valley Parkway, a major highway in Toronto, during a heavy rainstorm July 8.

Mark Blinch/REUTERS

Part of Liquid State, an occasional series on our relationship with water.

First comes the deluge. Then the scramble to clean up. And then the hope that a flood-ravaged community won't see a so-called "once-in-100-years" disaster for another century.

But with scientists, urban planners and insurers warning that freak flooding events that wreaked havoc on communities in Southern Alberta and around Toronto this summer will only grow more common with climate change, municipalities are now beginning to take the expensive, prolonged and sometimes politically unpopular steps to build up ambitious flood prevention infrastructure.

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Even with the increased frequency of these events, there's a debate over whether it's worth investing in extensive flood prevention programs for natural disasters whose arrival times are unknown. Municipalities have long wish lists of other more straightforward and instantly gratifying infrastructure projects, and aren't sure if the flood management measures they do take will be enough to ward off extensive damage.

Following the release of an Alberta government plan for compensation and flood mitigation measures, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi expressed concern that municipalities were not consulted, that the province's flood maps may be out of date and that it's not clear what next steps homeowners must take.

In an interview, he pointed to the inner city neighbourhood of Inglewood, which saw some flood destruction held at bay by a berm constructed in 2011.

"Is that berm a mitigation effort? Does that mean that homeowners who are building in that neighbourhood do not need to do anything further? And that's where we really have to work to get some definition. And that will take some time," he said.

Calgary and Toronto might look to New York City for inspiration on large-scale flood prevention: Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans in June to commit $20-billion on a network of flood walls, levees and bulkheads around New York as well as a the construction of what would be called "Seaport City" to protect Lower Manhattan. While the price tag is enormous, it doesn't come close to the estimated $50-billion to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, which devastated cities and towns along the northeastern shore of the U.S. last October.

From Vancouver to Calgary to the Greater Toronto Area, municipalities have drafted plans to modify their stormwater management systems, but without funding in place in some cases and prolonged bureaucratic processes, it may be decades (which could bring other episodes of devastating flooding) before these measures become a reality.

COSTS

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As history has shown, flood relief efforts are often swift and extensive: Mr. Nenshi won much political capital for his leadership in the weeks that followed his city's flood in June. But once the water recedes and displaced residents are relocated, municipalities tend to return to normal a little too quickly, says Ken Greenberg, a prominent urban planner and architect in Toronto.

"We don't sustain that sense of urgency. We slip back into these bureaucratic modes that are not time-sensitive and certainly not pursued as urgent agendas."

For politicians, there is a greater incentive to bring the heroics in the form of flood relief action rather than prevention planning, according to research from political scientists at Stanford University and Loyola Marymount University. A 2009 study of American cities found that even though $1 spent on preparedness was worth $15 in mitigated damage, voters rewarded politicians for effectively leading relief efforts but "offered scant incentives to presidents to pursue cost-effective preparedness spending."

Mr. Nenshi recently told the Globe that in his city, flood prevention "has never seemed to be a hugely sexy thing, particularly among the other orders of government." The 103,000 people evacuated during June's flood (nearly one-tenth of the city's population) have now pushed it to the top of the municipal priority list.

The federal government opened the door to targeted funding for disaster mitigation infrastructure in 2007, and funds have been earmarked for it in every budget since then. But municipalities must apply for funds, and they only cover a small portion of stormwater management costs.

And so in the City of Mississauga, west of Toronto, council has turned to the taxpayer to make up the large balance. A recent study completed by a consultant said the city would need to bring its annual spending on stormwater maintenance from $14.7-million a year to $40-million to make it sustainable. In December, city council approved a new annual levy of about $95 per household to meet that goal, though it may be another year or two before it is administered. Those whose properties have more grass and less concrete (which means better drainage) will pay lower fees.

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A FAILURE TO PLAN

Creating incentives and disincentives for homeowners is one thing, but municipalities can also reduce water-damage risk by rethinking how their land can be used.

"Across much of the country, there are no flood maps and there are virtually no restrictions to floodplain development – meaning that communities keep being built, and rebuilt, in high-risk flood zones," explained Steve Kee, a spokesman for the Insurance Bureau of Canada. "What's more, investment in flood control, such as dams and dikes, continues to be spotty at best."

Record rainfall or not, reinsurer Swiss Re, which provides insurance to insurance companies, says recent disasters were within the scope of their expectations and governments need to plan better.

"We looked at Alberta [before the flood] and we predicted the magnitudes of losses that may occur if we had significant weather events and would say this was not terribly unusual from a research point of view," said Sharon Ludlow, the chief executive officer of Swiss Re Canada.

Municipalities often revisit their construction standards after major weather events, such as floods, though they could benefit from a more pro-active approach, said Jason Ball, president of Kitchener-based Ball Construction Ltd. His company does mostly commercial property development throughout Ontario, including city projects.

"There were recommendations made in Calgary years ago and those recommendations weren't really reacted upon properly. Perhaps some of that is poor management," he said. A 2006 report called for $306-million worth of improvements to the province's flood prevention infrastructure, the year after the city's last major flood.

CHANGES ON THE HORIZON

Canadian property and casualty insurers say they have been watching closely for signs of regulatory change that could require them to provide country-wide overland flooding coverage, rather than just sewage backup protection. Frustrated policy holders and, more importantly, cash-strapped governments, may call for more insurance provisions as the severity and frequency of major floods increase.

Policy changes could take years, but whether it is insurers or governments who provide disaster relief, costs will be spread to Canadians through either higher premiums or taxes, one industry spokesperson said.

While Calgarians may be champing at the bit for a comprehensive plan to prevent June's devastation in the future, city officials have not decided on a wish list, noting they are focusing on getting people back in their homes and then fixing damaged infrastructure.

On the west coast, the City of Vancouver last year introduced a Climate Change Adaptation Strategy that includes measures that range from separating the city's stormwater and waste sewers to implementing a back-up power policy.

One of the main elements of its strategy is a coastal flood risk assessment that is expected to be complete this year and give officials a better idea of how and where to spend money on storm-proofing.

The idea is to safeguard homes and structures but also to save money; the report cites studies that conclude adapting a new house, bridge or transmission line to climate change for its life cycle will either result in no change to construction costs or a 5 per cent increase overall "which is significantly cheaper than restoring infrastructure post-damage."

There are also options for managing flood waters that don't come with the same price tags as replacing pipe systems or building retention walls.

"For so long we have been developing stormwater infrastructure to suck up all this water, channel it down a tiny pipe and fire it back into the ocean – and as soon as there is too much for the pipes, it is out on the streets," explained David Flanders, research scientist with the University of British Columbia's Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning. An alternate solution: directing water to green spaces or light industrial spaces where it has a better chance of draining.

"You can channel this away so it sits in a park or a school field – which kind of sucks, but not as much as if your school or hospital or your condo building gets flooded," he said.

BUREAUCRATIC DELAYS

In Mississauga, several flood-prevention projects around the Cooksville Creek – which had its most dramatic flood in 2009 – were approved, including 13 underground retention ponds. But July's storm hit before any of the major projects were finished.

"The hope was that this plan would be put in place and would have been completed before a similar event occurred," said John Kinkead, the acting chief administrative officer and director of water resources with Credit Valley Conservation.

When the skies opened up over Toronto that same day, the west-end neighbourhood of Etobicoke was hit hardest. City councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby, whose ward is in Etobicoke, said the city needs to follow through on programs to replace aging sewers – programs that have been put off because of budget constraints.

"It's always defer, defer, defer," she said. "We need to replace those old sewers."

But making such changes in Toronto, a city whose urban core was built up long before the development of stormwater guidelines, is no small feat. Flood prevention involves "re-engineering subdivisions" to increase the capacity of storm sewers and installing stormwater detention tanks, said Lou Di Gironimo, the general manager of Toronto Water.

The last major storm in Toronto, in 2005, caused flooding in 4,000 homes and prompted the city to create a basement flooding protection program that zeroed-in on 34 areas. Projects were approved in 2006 and construction began on the first set of them in 2009 – though they are a long way from being finished and dependent on steady annual funding from the city.

Projects often stall at the environmental assessment stage, said Mr. Di Gironimo.

"We have to explore a variety of different options, we have to build proper sewer models and come up with the solutions that would address some of the problems. That can take anywhere from a year to a year-and-a-half to complete that process."

Many referred to the July 8 storm as a "50-year" or "100-year" event. Mr. Kinkead says people need to change their thinking.

"Most municipalities would have to look at things as to say, on average, if it were to happen every 50 years, this is the kind of money we ought to be devoting to improving resilience or flood mitigation. If we thought it was going to happen every four years the plan might in fact look different," he said.

With files from Carrie Tait in Calgary and Elizabeth Church in Toronto

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About the Authors

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

Financial Services Reporter

Jacqueline Nelson is a financial services reporter at the Report on Business. Prior to that she was a staff writer at Canadian Business magazine, covering news and writing features on a wide variety of subjects. More

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Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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