Provincial Flood Advisor’s Report Calls for Strategies to Address Flooding and Erosion in Windsor-Essex

Thursday, November 28, 2019

image of rough waters on a shoreline

Essex Region – The Province of Ontario released its Independent Review of 2019 Flood Events in Ontario today. Contained within the 66 recommendations was a call for the provincial, federal and municipal governments to 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.

“We are very thankful to Mr. McNeil and the Province for recognizing the serious and longstanding challenges that the many residents in our low-lying region continue to experience are different than those in other parts of Ontario,” said Richard Wyma, ERCA’s General Manager.

In July, John Yakabuski, Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, named Doug McNeil as Special Advisor on Flooding, and charged him with conducting an independent review of flood management and 2019 flooding events in Ontario.  Locally, ERCA staff, municipal staff, and other stakeholders were some of those consulted on the impacts of flooding across Ontario.  In his review, Mr. McNeil confirmed that this year’s record-setting flooding in many parts of the province was caused by a combination of weather conditions: colder-than-average winter and spring, higher-than-average snowpack, lack of significant winter thaw, rapid snow melt and significant rain events in the spring.

In 2019, residents of Windsor-Essex experienced each of those serious issues. As a result of record high lake levels, the Windsor-Essex region was under an extended Flood Watch for more than six months. Municipalities had to close roads and facilities in response to high water levels and offered sandbag programs to residents. Shoreline erosion on Pelee Island washed away sections of roads that are critical to ingress/egress for island residents. Residents along the Lake Erie shoreline between Leamington and the Town of Wheatley experienced 15 flood events since March 2019. Leamington undertook emergency repairs to dikes that help protect 400 homes and 2,100 hectares of farmland which lie 3 to 3.35 meters below Lake Erie water levels.

Numerous homes and properties throughout the region continue to suffer from flooding with limited access into and out of the community. Some of these areas are not municipally serviced and were sitting in water for prolonged periods, resulting in failing septic systems, mould and related health and safety and structural concerns, in addition to the physical and mental health effects associated with these conditions.

Mr. McNeil notes that these issues will be further exacerbated by climate change.  In addition to changing weather patterns and severe storm events, erosion rates along the Great Lakes shorelines have been severely impacted, and he cautions that landowners who thought they were 100 years away from erosion hazards might now only be 50 years away, and significant lengths of municipal infrastructure (roads and utilities) are at risk of failure.

The report credits Ontario’s preventative approach of directing development away from floodplains and other hazardous areas as keeping losses associated with flooding in Ontario lower than losses seen in other Canadian provinces. Responsibility for keeping development out of floodplains is a shared responsibility between conservation authorities (enforced through regulations made under Section 28 of the Conservation Authorities Act) and municipalities (directed under provincial planning policy and the Planning Act).

“These policies will be increasingly valuable in protecting Ontarians from flooding and other natural hazards. Losses associated with flooding and other natural hazards continue to increase because of increasing property values and income levels, urbanization, ongoing loss of wetlands and other green infrastructure, and the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall events. As these losses rise, so does the value of Ontario’s floodplain and broader hazard management policies,” says Mr. McNeil’s report.

The report also highlights the five pillars of emergency management (Prevention, Mitigation, Preparedness, Response and Recovery), and the importance of conservation authorities within this framework. “We are certainly on the ground when floods happen, but our efforts are even more focused on preventing and mitigating flooding,” says Wyma. “ERCA’s integrated flood program begins with first identifying flood and erosion prone areas through watershed planning and floodplain mapping to keep development out of floodplains and other hazardous lands. Our Clean Water~Green Spaces and rural water quality stewardship programs help to restore and protect our waterways, woodlands and wetlands and reduce erosion to build watershed resilience and absorb flood waters. We review development applications to mitigate the risks of flooding. We track watershed conditions, monitor river and lake levels, and if necessary issue flood alerts to help municipalities and residents prepare. And if floods do happen, we are often first on the ground to continually monitor and assess what’s happening, communicate with municipal emergency coordinators and residents. After a flood, we meet with our partners to learn from the event and help assess damage to support recovery actions.”

Among the 66 recommendations, the report supports conservation authority and municipal efforts to update floodplain mapping with new technologies. It further encourages the province to work with conservation authorities to develop technical guidelines pertaining to floods and natural hazards, support the WECI program, require that flood risk properties be identified to raise awareness and ensure prospective buyers are aware.  “The report confirms many of the concerns we have been raising for the past decade,” says Wyma. “We look forward to urgently working with all levels of government toward implementing these recommendations and continuing to reduce flooding risks for those most vulnerable.” The full report can be found here.

Since 1973, Essex Region Conservation has been sustaining and enriching the environment of the Windsor-Essex-Pelee Island region to ensure it is the Place for Life.

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