1.1 Preface

Flooding is a natural phenomenon. In the scientific context, a natural phenomenon is something that is observed to occur or to exist without human input. But of course, there is human input in the form of activities, such as deforestation, rapid drainage of rural land, urbanization, and the existence of structures and the operational procedures of those structures. The problem with a year like 2019 is that the natural events (snow, rain, melting, wind) that caused the flooding were so much larger than what we have measured to be average, that the human inputs have had very little impact, positive or negative. The most ideal human input has been ensuring people and property are out of harm’s way.

As a natural phenomenon, major storm events that contribute to significant flood events will happen again, but with climate change we can expect that they will be more frequent and/or more significant. There is no one level of government that can be expected to deal with floods before, during and after they happen, but rather every level of government (federal, provincial, municipal, county), agencies of government (conservation authorities), and every individual, has a role and responsibility.

Ontario has a long history of trying to keep people and property safe from the impacts of flooding through land use planning policies and mitigative activities.

The development of the modern floodplain policy in Ontario, the watershed approach, the conservation authority model, and the flood standards have been extremely effective at reducing flood risks, especially in new greenfield development areas. Strong provincial legislation and policy, including the Planning Act and the Provincial Policy Statement, the Conservation Authorities Act, Lakes and Rivers Improvement Act, and natural hazard technical guides, have collectively gone a long way to reducing and mitigating flood risks in Ontario. Historic investment in flood mitigation infrastructure, such as dams, dikes, flood channels and shoreline protection, has delivered structural solutions to reduce flood risk to existing and new developments in floodplains. This broad approach has served the province well.

While these policies and mitigative activities have made Ontario a leader across Canada, it is clear that Ontarians continue to be significantly impacted by flood events and the costs associated with these impacts continue to mount.

During the spring of 2019, heavy rains paired with melting snow and a sudden temperature increase led to devastating flooding across many areas throughout northern and southern Ontario. Emergency declarations were made by 23 municipalities and one First Nation with significant flooding impacting households, commercial properties, roads and other key infrastructure such as bridges. Emergencies were first declared starting in early April and lasting through July in many cases. Homeowners, municipal and provincial emergency response personnel, and countless volunteers including the Canadian Forces worked tirelessly for weeks defending against the high water, reminiscent of a similar scene only two years earlier.

In response to these flood events, the provincial government announced that it would be undertaking consultation on the province’s current flood mitigation and land use planning policies. Their first step was to host three regional listening sessions held by provincial leaders with municipal, Indigenous and industry leaders in Muskoka, Pembroke and Ottawa, in May. These sessions allowed the Province to hear directly from areas most devastated by the spring floods. Acknowledging that these sessions did not cover all areas that experienced flooding, nor provided the public with an opportunity to engage on the topic, the Province invited comments regarding flooding and suggestions to make Ontario more resilient to flooding through an online survey from May 16 to June 28.

Following this initial engagement in the spring, I was appointed by the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, the Honourable John Yakabuski (Minister) on July 18, 2019, to review the Province’s current flood management framework. In addition to considering policies and activities which influenced spring flooding, I was also asked to consider both Great Lakes and urban flooding.

Throughout the Great Lakes, a period of high-water levels has been underway since early 2017. Businesses, resource management, recreational activities and shipping have all been affected by unprecedented high-water levels, and many residents have been displaced from their homes, as shoreline erosion and road access affect public safety. Agricultural centres along the shore of Lake Erie have been threatened and emergency declarations continue to plague shoreline communities, in some cases built below current lake levels.

Urban flooding is becoming a more frequently occurring public safety hazard. This type of flooding occurs when excessive runoff from a storm event exceeds infrastructure capacity and capabilities, thereby increasing urban stream erosion and flooding, and potentially causing sewers to back up into basements and overflows of raw sewage into lakes and natural watercourses. In 2018, two individuals were caught in a Toronto elevator, narrowly escaping rising waters. Isolated intense storm events have caused significant flood damages to major infrastructure in urban areas and occur with little to no warning.

It is not hard to see that flooding, whether it is as a result of spring freshet, urban flooding or high Great Lakes water levels, is having a growing effect on Ontarians, and has reminded us that there is always room to improve.

Based on an analysis of the information available for all of the systems that experienced flooding in 2019, nothing points to human error or the negligent operation of water control structures as the cause of the flooding. The sheer amount of water (snow and rainfall) on the landscape directly contributed to the flooding. Measures taken by the water managers everywhere were effective in reducing the magnitude of flooding and associated damages throughout the drainage basins.

1.2 Terms of reference

As Special Advisor on Flooding, I was appointed by the government to provide expert advice to the Minister and to make recommendations to the government on opportunities to improve the existing flood policy framework.

Specifically, I was asked to focus my review on and provide recommendations regarding:

  • Current roles and responsibilities among agencies involved in flood management;
  • Increasing awareness among homeowners about the growing risk of flooding and living in flood-prone areas;
  • The Province's current legislative, land use planning and flood mitigation policy framework, including guidance, approaches and opportunities for improvement;
  • Potential additional mitigation approaches that could help address impacts to existing development in floodplains; and
  • Opportunities to improve community resilience in the face of ongoing threats.

To conduct the work, I was tasked with reviewing and building on what was heard during the targeted listening sessions held in Muskoka, Pembroke and Ottawa in May 2019, as well as comments received through the online survey. I was also afforded the opportunity to conduct additional consultations to hear and learn about the flood experiences across many areas of Ontario.

My report, to be submitted by October 31, 2019, would draw from my personal expertise and knowledge as well as additional available resources from the Province to provide my best advice to the government based on my review. My report and recommendations would consider the array of local issues as well as the roles played by municipal and federal governments in flood management, and ensure my recommendations could be feasibly implemented within the province.

My work was supported by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, which provided background materials and logistical support, and facilitated the transfer of information and correspondence from the public and stakeholders related to my review.