Independent review of the 2019 flood events in Ontario
Read Special Advisor Doug McNeil’s report on the 2019 flood events, including recommendations for improving flood resilience and enhancing public safety.
Ontario has a long history of taking actions 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.
However, 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 lasted through July in many cases. Even through the fall and heading into winter, the Great Lakes continue to experience high-water levels that have been underway since early 2017, and many people and properties continue to be at risk.
In response to these flood events, the provincial government announced that it would undertake 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 2019. 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, 2019.
Following this initial engagement in the spring, I was appointed by the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, the Honourable John Yakabuski, 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.
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.
Despite having worked in Manitoba on flooding issues throughout my career, I was unfamiliar with the complex policy framework for flood management in Ontario. Understanding the various roles of agencies involved, including the federal government, municipalities, conservation authorities and individual provincial ministries, along with the policies and technical guidance was of utmost importance to the review process. The Ministry provided a number of documents to enable an understanding of the current policy framework for flood management in Ontario and a listing of the documents is included in Appendix A.
While information provided by the Ministry was helpful in providing context for my evaluation, further engagement was warranted to ensure a full review.
I first met with Minister Yakabuski to ensure a clear understanding of my mandate and the importance of this review to the people of Ontario. He underscored the devastating impacts being felt across the province from flooding and the need for the Province to help citizens and ensure their safety in the future.
Working with the Ministry, a nine-day community tour over two weeks in early September 2019 was developed to highlight the variance in issues, geographies and responsibilities. Tour stops included a mix of provincial department meetings; agency meetings; municipal and conservation authority roundtables; and guided tours of locally impacted areas. The first set of community tours took place in the Ottawa, Pembroke and North Bay areas. During the second week of my community tours, I visited Toronto, Muskoka, Cambridge and London.
I have segmented my report into six chapters:
- The Review Process
- Background and the 2019 Flooding in Ontario
- Region Specific Situations
- Ontario’s Approach to Managing Flood Risk
- Challenges and Opportunities to Managing Flood Risk
In Chapter 3, I wanted to set the stage and explain all of the reasons behind the 2019 flooding, such as the above average snowfall in winter 2018/19, above average snow water equivalent, low temperatures going well into the spring, and significant rainfall during snow melt.
I prepared Chapter 4 to try to provide the reader with explanations as to what happened during the flooding in each of the watersheds that I visited or heard about. Too often I heard people say they didn’t understand how systems worked, or if they did, they felt that operations could have been done differently for a better result. I asked for and am grateful for the significant amount of detailed information from the various conservation authorities, municipalities, agencies and provincial departments. A lot of this information is included in this report, but was first reviewed and edited by me.
In Chapter 5, I talk about the core components of emergency management—prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. I also identify the Acts, regulations, policies and technical guidelines regarding floods. Lastly, I write about the roles and responsibilities of provincial ministries, municipalities, conservation authorities, the federal government, and other agencies involved in flood management.
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. In Chapter 6, I write about the challenges and opportunities to managing flood risk, and include my numerous Recommendations to the Ontario Government and Recommendations to the other parties discussed in Chapter 5.
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 water managers everywhere were effective in reducing the magnitude of flooding and associated damages throughout the drainage basins.
My work was supported by, and I am very much indebted to, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, which provided background materials, logistic support for meetings and tours, and facilitated the transfer of information and correspondence from the public and stakeholders related to my review.
Author’s note: Implementation of many of the recommendations in this report are focused on agencies outside the jurisdiction or control of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF). In those cases, I would expect that the MNRF can initiate discussions with the particular agency to try and seek agreement for implementation, in full or in part.
That the MNRF proceed as expeditiously as possible to finalize its proposed regulation under the Conservation Authorities Act and submit it to Cabinet for approval.
That the MNRF consult with the conservation authorities on their application of the hazards-based approach and the risk-based approach to managing flooding.
That the following be incorporated into the Provincial Policy Statement:
- The reference to “impacts of a changing climate” throughout the Provincial Policy Statement helps to bring it to everyone’s attention and should be included in the Preamble as well.
- Either in the body of the PPS or in the definitions section, reference should be made specifically to the requirement for conservation authorities to regulate development activities in hazardous lands as required in the Conservation Authorities Act.
- That “d) Transportation and Infrastructure Corridors, Airports, Solid and Liquid Waste Management” be added to Section 3.1.5 of the Provincial Policy Statement.
That the MNRF update floodplain mapping technical and implementation guidelines recognizing new technology and approaches for flood hazard and flood risk mapping, and that the MNRF collaborate with conservation authorities on this initiative.
That the Province update its technical guides pertaining to floods and natural hazards. This should include undertaking a review of the flood event standards (e.g. 1%, Timmins storm, Hurricane Hazel), with a view to providing for current science and climate change, such as a specified minimum freeboard. This should also include reviewing the floodplain areas (floodway, floodway fringe, shoreline setbacks) as well as reviewing and updating, where appropriate, Great Lakes flood level values and shoreline erosion hazard methodologies and allowances.
That the Province establish a working group with provincial departments, conservation authorities and municipalities to prepare a multi-year approach to floodplain mapping.
That the federal government be encouraged to extend the National Disaster Mitigation Program or develop a successor program, so that municipalities, conservation authorities, and Ontario and Quebec (in consideration of the Ottawa River) can undertake or update floodplain mapping in all critical areas.
That the Province consider the establishment of a provincial Elevation Mapping Program and commit to the annual funding requirements.
That the Province consider establishing a provincial custodian for floodplain mapping information and make the necessary updates to policies, regulations and legislation.
That the Ministry of the Solicitor General implement the Auditor General’s recommendations regarding a governance framework for emergency management and updating continuity of operations programs as soon as possible.
That the Province consider whether the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act needs to be amended with a view to clarifying roles and responsibilities of identifying hazardous areas.
That the MNRF consider working with Conservation Ontario and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario to determine how the experience and information developed by municipalities and conservation authorities of identifying hazardous areas can be transferred to municipalities without a conservation authority.
That the Province consider legislative amendments that clarify the permissions under the Conservation Authority Act and the land use approvals in accordance with the Planning Act as they relate to development in hazardous areas.
That the Province consider new legislation to improve the existing flood policy framework by having a lead minister responsible for all flood-related policy, standards, regulations and legislation.
That the Province consider adopting legislation that will require flood risk properties to be identified in some way that is publicly accessible, at the very least on the property title, to ensure that prospective buyers are aware.
That municipalities consider utilizing local improvement charges to help finance and install (or upgrade) shoreline protection works, and if necessary, that the Province provide municipalities with enhanced authority to do so.
That the Province support municipalities and conservation authorities to ensure the conservation, restoration and creation of natural green infrastructure (i.e. wetlands, forest cover, pervious surfaces) during land use planning to reduce runoff and mitigate the impacts of flooding.
That the MNRF North Bay District facilitate a meeting between the Sturgeon-Nipissing-French watershed group and the Upper Ottawa River Watershed group to help the latter group establish a collaborative arrangement for future flood events. It is important that all parties involved in the flood be present at the meeting.
That the City of North Bay in particular, and any other municipalities in a similar situation, install appropriate treatment plant bypass piping to improve resiliency of key infrastructure and limit the impacts of flooding on this infrastructure and associated impacts to public health and safety.
That the Province, the federal government (Public Service and Procurement Canada) and the North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority review the Lake Nipissing Operational Guidelines.
That the MNRF establish a communication protocol to inform and involve key stakeholders (i.e. municipalities) on watershed conditions and operations throughout the fall and winter leading into and throughout the spring freshet, commencing in early 2020.
That the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) use the results of the Muskoka Watershed Conservation and Management Initiative to inform any potential future amendments to the Muskoka River Water Management Plan by working with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and in the meantime, that the MECP consider whether to encourage the municipalities to establish a conservation authority or request the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to restrict development in the floodplains (e.g. Ministerial Order).
That Haliburton County document how their collaborative model worked for the 2019 flood and share this information with, and for the benefit of, other counties, municipalities and conservation authorities.
That provincial, federal and municipal governments work with the Essex Region Conservation Authority and the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority to undertake a coordinated short- and long-term strategy to address the existing and expected impacts to Chatham-Kent, Windsor-Essex and Pelee Island as a result of current and future water levels, flood and erosion hazards, and climate change on Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River.
That the MNRF review and update the appropriate technical guides, with consideration of a new category permitting development in hazardous lands along large inland lakes, rivers and streams, and along the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence River, utilizing flood protection land forms and/or other forms of flood protection and floodproofing methods with very strict requirements and conditions. Further, consideration should be given to enshrining this concept in legislation or in a regulation along with other structural methods that are now permitted in non-hazard lands or Special Policy Areas.
That, due to the increased use of the regional flood control facilities, the MNRF review whether the Province should take steps to regulate the use of these structures or let municipalities decide their use.
That the Province create a working group of all pertinent ministries to define their respective roles as they pertain to pluvial flooding.
That the Province consider whether it should take steps to regulate drainage standards in urban areas, such as the requirement to restrict runoff flows to pre-development rates and flood protection measures for private property, and if so, what is the most appropriate legislation.
That the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks reach out to the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, as part of their commitment to consult with the insurance and real estate industry under the 2018 Environment Plan, to work collaboratively to raise awareness among homeowners about the increasing risk of flooding and to disseminate the basement flooding protection information to homeowners.
That the Ministry of Infrastructure ensure that the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund supports municipalities in enhancing and implementing asset management plans (which includes stormwater management and consideration of climate change adaptation and mitigation activities), which will help municipalities make the best possible investment decisions for their infrastructure assets.
That the Ministry of Infrastructure work specifically with the MNRF on the design of future intakes of the Green stream of the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program to ensure flood-related projects are eligible.
That the Province continue to fund the Water Erosion Control Infrastructure program and consider adopting a multi-year budget.
That the Province continue to issue Green Bonds in 2020 and beyond to help finance extreme-weather resistant infrastructure.
That the Province continue its financial commitment and partnership arrangement with the federal government through the hydrometric network agreement.
That the Province continue to monitor the effectiveness and location of gauges to ensure that there is appropriate coverage and consider repositioning gauges if necessary.
That, where appropriate and where funding permits, the Province consider the installation of GOES telemetry at key locations where more frequent access to information is required (areas of higher risk/watersheds that react quickly to changes in precipitation or snowmelt) and where current landline telecommunication technology is less secure and not as reliable in transmitting information.
That, where appropriate and where funding permits, the Province consider the use of automated alarms at those stations in watersheds of higher risk/quick response to precipitation and snowmelt to alert when water levels have exceeded a threshold of concern.
That the Province explore whether there would be value toward additional manual snow course locations in those watersheds where snow cover and snow water content are factors in spring flooding, and seek to involve the citizens in the collection and reporting of that data.
That the Province explore the feasibility of remote sensing products to better estimate the spatial distribution of snow and snow patterns.
That the MNRF work with federal, provincial and local partners as well as industry toward an Open Data model where information is shared and consolidated into the existing Surface Water Monitoring Centre hydrometric monitoring database.
That the Province investigate the return on investment of utilizing the new satellite imagery and resourcing with the necessary staff additions to provide better flood forecasting and monitoring.
That the Province update the flood forecasting and warning guidelines, providing clarity on roles and responsibilities (conservation authorities, MNRF district offices, municipalities) and provide examples of the systems, from simple to complex, with recognition that each system should be designed to reflect the local watershed characteristics and resources.
That the Ministry of the Solicitor General implement emergency operations initiatives in response to the recommendations of the Auditor General as soon as possible.
That Emergency Management Ontario improve its processes for interacting with municipalities and clearly lay out the processes on their website.
That Emergency Management Ontario clearly lay out the process for municipalities to request assistance during emergencies and provide field support to help determine the assistance that is required.
That the Province have a central website for flooding issues that provides answers (for conservation authorities, municipalities and the public) to a myriad of typical and frequent questions, or at the very least, a link to the agency (provincial department, power company, etc.) that provides the answers to the questions.
That the Province review the funding formula for eligibility of municipalities under the Municipal Disaster Recovery Assistance program.
That the “build back better” pilot under the Municipal Disaster Recovery Assistance program move from a “pilot” to a full program. The Province should consider raising the 15% cap where it makes economic sense. The program should be tied to legislated flood protection levels and floodproofing criteria. For example, a bridge damaged by a flood can only be replaced if it is raised to the design flood.
That the Province consider including a “build back better” component under the Disaster Recovery Assistance for Ontarians program.
That the Province approach Indigenous Services Canada about expanding their disaster assistance program to include houses that are leased on First Nation reserve land by non-status individuals.
That the Disaster Recovery Assistance for Ontarians program be flexible enough to allow for removal of the structure from the floodplain (buyout) if it is the only technically and financially feasible option.
That the Province continue the dialogue with the Insurance Bureau of Canada and the federal government on the steps needed to make flood insurance more available to more Ontarians.
That the Province ensure that municipalities have all the information regarding eligible items under the Municipal Disaster Recovery Assistance program, including costs for disposal of waste materials from a flood.
That the Province consider special or expedited approvals for new or expanded landfills if significant capacity is used up from the disposal of flood-related waste materials.
That the International Joint Commission, the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board, and Ontario Power Generation make their detailed information about their flood operations readily available on their respective websites.
That the International Joint Commission consider meeting with interested stakeholder groups and individuals to explain in considerable detail how their structures are operated.
That the International Joint Commission consider creating specific “2017 Flood” and “2019 Flood” buttons for their home webpage and populating those pages with detailed information on the floods and their operations, as well as providing direct links to related reports.
That the supporting agencies of the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board (Canada, Ontario, Quebec and the dam operators) consider reviewing the original agreement, recommendations and guiding principles, and board policies given they are almost 40 years old.
That the supporting agencies of the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board (Canada, Ontario, Quebec and the dam operators) consider removing “Regulation” from the title, as it implies that the Board can actually manage large floods when, in fact, they cannot because of the limited storage capacity of the generating station reservoirs, which were designed for electric power generation and not flood control.
That a communications officer be assigned to the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board to help with messaging during flood events or any public meetings and free up the staff engineers to concentrate on their duties. At least two communications officers should be assigned as needed and well trained in the technical operations. The officers should be from another government department as opposed to Ontario Power Generation or another non-government dam owner, since the public believes the dam owners only care about generating electricity.
That a communications person with marketing experience work with the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board to prepare more easily understood materials for publication. The approach to managing the Ottawa River by the Board is not well understood by the public or government officials. Also, the materials should not be confusing. In one example I saw, a line graph showed a water level difference of 1.0 metres but the text below it stated “> 50 cm or 20 in.”
That the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board work with Ontario Power Generation and consider installing staff gauges at critical settled locations along the river, and engage residents to read and report on these gauges. These residents have a vested interest in getting accurate information and so their “buy-in” could be to volunteer their time to provide the data.
That two municipal officials, one from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and one from the Quebec counterpart, sit on the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board. The intent is to provide contact persons on the Board trusted by municipalities in both provinces, and for the municipal representatives on the Board to help disseminate correct and accurate information back to municipalities. Consideration could also be given to adding municipal representatives to the Ottawa River Regulating Committee, in addition to or instead of the Board. It is recognized that the three signatories to the Agreement (Canada, Ontario and Quebec) would have to agree to amending the Agreement for this purpose.
That Ontario Power Generation create a dynamic illustration regarding the dry section at Deux-Rivieres that “walks” the observer through the changes in water levels during low to normal to high flows, with voice-over explanation of water level changes, and that this video be included on their website.
That Ontario Power Generation identify options to address their concern about refill dates and provide greater flexibility on how refill is determined, taking into consideration the range of potential impacts, to support potential amendment proposals to relevant Water Management Plans.
That the Province maintain, at a minimum, the current level of funding in departmental budgets and programs related to everything flood (i.e. existing approval processes and associated policies and technical requirements, floodplain mapping, maintenance of flood infrastructure, satellite imagery, etc.).