On November 28th, Mr. Doug McNeil, Ontario’s Special Advisor on Flooding released his Independent Review of the 2019 Flood Events in Ontario. The report lists 66 recommendations to the Ontario government on opportunities to improve the existing flood policy framework. Ottawa Riverkeeper agrees with many of the recommendations within Mr. McNeil’s report and fully agrees that flood management is a shared responsibility. As is highlighted within this report, the policy framework for flood management in Ontario is complex and requires understanding the various roles for the agencies involved, including the federal government, municipalities, conservation authorities and individual provincial ministries.
There are a wide range of topics discussed and these highlight the need for: stronger technical support for mapping, sharing of expertise across provincial jurisdictions, increased monitoring, and clearer lines of communications. However, there are also specific challenges with flooding within the Ottawa River watershed that are not thoroughly addressed these include:
- the need for stronger direction to provincial agencies and municipal authorities to ensure that all areas of the province have the same level of technical support to develop flood maps and appropriate Official Plans using a watershed approach, not only those with Conservation Authorities present;
- the need to incorporate recent changes to provincial legislation, which has reduced funding for Conservation Authorities (including their work on flooding), made protections for endangered species and their habitat more challenging, and streamlined how some the provincial authorities oversee permitting; and
- the need for agencies throughout the Ottawa River watershed to collaborate and help improve communications as well as create opportunities for sharing data and resources and seek out solutions that benefit the entire watershed.
This report affirms that the 2019 flooding in the Ottawa River Watershed was not the result of human error or negligent operation of water control structures. Mr. McNeil points out the intensity of the flooding was the result of a series of climate related factors that resulted in an unprecedented volume of water present in the watershed. It also includes detailed descriptions of the different watershed conditions in 2017, 2018 and 2019 to highlight how variation in snow accumulation, temperatures and the timing and volume of spring rainfalls can significantly influence the impact of flooding.
The need for a watershed approach to flood mitigation
This report focuses on what can be done within the province of Ontario but for the communities and residences located along the Ottawa River, working with partners across the watershed is critical to addressing flooding. Flooding can not be addressed municipality by municipality, it requires a coordination of approaches by all those within a watershed and its subwatersheds.
Ottawa Riverkeeper strongly believes that a true watershed-based approach must include both Ontario and Quebec as well as the Federal government – this will lead to better flood management and will effectively protect both citizens and species alike and help avoid many more millions of dollars in damages. Joint work, across jurisdictions, will go further to help build resilience in local watersheds help our communities adapt to the growing impacts of climate change.
Mr. McNeil acknowledges the challenges faced by decision makers, especially if there is not sufficient up-to-date and accurate data available. The report also recognizes the important role of Conservation Authorities including their contribution to maintaining flood maps and their willingness to share this technical understanding with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and municipalities in areas that do not have Conservation Authorities.
Despite Mr. McNeil highlighting how land use changes within a watershed can impact communities downstream, there is no recommendation for a watershed approach to be adopted by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) and municipalities located in areas without a Conservation Authorities. In addition, there is no suggestion on how to approach the flood mapping challenges for communities along the Ottawa River, which is heavily impacted by factors throughout the Ottawa River watershed during spring freshet and therefore requires collaboration with authorities in both Quebec and Ontario.
Robust data and legislation supports decision making
Flood maps can provide important information to help guide land-use planning and permitting and facilitate conserving important landscape features such as wetlands, which play a vital role in mitigating water levels and flow during flooding events. While Ottawa Riverkeeper is pleased to see a recommendation for the conservation, restoration and creation of green infrastructure, it would have been stronger to outline to municipalities how this can be achieved.
Recent legislative changes in Ontario make it harder for municipalities to preserve these spaces from development as protections for species-at-risk and their habitat were removed to prioritise the streamlined permitting process required for project approvals. This same legislation reduced funding to Conservation Authorities, specifically their work on flooding, work that has been cited throughout this report as providing an important role for flooding preparedness and warning in different regions of the province. It is important to apply this changing legislative landscape in Ontario to the Recommendations outlined in this report and acknowledge the need to build capacity in municipalities, MNRF and Conservation Authorities in order to take on the activities listed.
There are a number of recommendations within this report to improve communications leading up to and during flooding events that are applicable to the Ottawa River watershed. This includes a communication specialist to assist the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board. Ottawa Riverkeeper agrees that providing clear and timely information about factors affecting water levels and and supports the recommendations that would provide more expertise and resources for this to be as effective as possible. This includes clear communications about unique factors along the Ottawa River during the spring freshet that leads to more significant flooding in some areas and low water in other areas.
As a proponent of science-based decision making, Ottawa Riverkeeper is encouraged by the recommendation to add to the hydrometric network as streamflow and water level data will contribute to a stronger understanding of the Ottawa River and its tributaries throughout the year, but specifically during flooding events. Adding stream flow or water level gauges is costly, and for the Ottawa River watershed should not be done in isolation.
Quebec is modernising and adding to its hydrometric network and the federal government is investing millions in improving the National Hydrological Service. This is an excellent opportunity to collaborate and increase data availability through the watershed by working together.
Collaboration is critical
Many recommendations in the report highlight the need to work across jurisdictions and to increase data sharing and timely communication. As former Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna stressed in her letter to Yakabuski, dated August 1st, 2019: “options on a potential path forward, including the scope of any proposed independent review. It is critical that all three governments move forward collaboratively to ensure the outcomes needed for the affected communities.”
How do we mitigate the effects when flooding happens again? Ottawa Riverkeeper strongly believes that better management in the future means seeing the watershed as a cross-jurisdictional space.
Ottawa Riverkeeper calls on officials from both Ontario and Quebec and the federal government to come together for the creation of a Joint Watershed Council that straddles both shores and includes mechanisms for data sharing and solution finding across jurisdictions. Flood management and its effects on infrastructure and biodiversity cannot be looked at in isolation. Approximately %65 of the Ottawa River watershed includes rivers and tributaries and wetlands within the province of Quebec. A holistic view of roles, responsibilities, rules and regulations need to be taken soon if true flood management is to be undertaken. Better mechanisms for data sharing and solution finding across jurisdictions are key to ensuring not only an effective flood management plan but also the health of the rivers in the Ottawa River watershed.