Infrastructure planning in the age of 100-year floods

OPINION: The structures and systems we built decades ago don’t reflect reality anymore. Preparing for the floods to come won’t be easy — or cheap
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 18, 2019
Ontario flooding
A home on the Ottawa River in Whitewater Region, east of Pembroke, is surrounded by water after flooding in May 2019. (Justin Tang/CP)

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If you believe the word of the Bible, our relationship with the almighty is intimately connected with water. God punishes the world with flood in that whole Noah-and-the-ark business, but afterwards promises never to do so again and gives Noah the newly vacated world for his trouble. In Job, the almighty thunders that He told the waters of the Earth, “This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt.” One of God’s gifts to humankind is the security of knowing where the water is and where dry land is — and knowing that will never change.

In the Year of Our Lord 2019, things aren’t so simple. We live in a world where water is increasingly showing up in unexpected places, or in greater volumes, or with more force than we’ve ever seen. And the answers for what to do about it aren’t simple — and won’t be cheap.

This week’s reporting from TVO.org’s Hubs has looked at how flooding is affecting communities across the province. Kashechewan First Nation, in the north, will be relocated lock, stock, and barrel after years of evacuating residents to larger cities during spring flooding season. That’s admittedly one way to deal with the problem, but it’s not an option for a city of nearly a quarter million people, like Windsor. Even if it were, you couldn’t move Windsor without destroying it: the city exists where it does in large part because of the connections with Detroit on the other side of the river. All over the world, we’ve put stuff on waterfronts for a reason, and, when the water moves, it causes problems.

Even, it turns out, when the bodies of water are actually pretty thoroughly controlled. The level of the St. Lawrence River is supposed to be moderated by the Robert Moses dam, near Montreal, and, for decades, the International Joint Commission that regulates the Great Lakes shared by Canada and the United States did just that, maintaining stable levels to allow for navigation. Then, after years of advocacy from conservationists, the IJC adopted Plan 2014, whose goal is to reintroduce some of the river’s natural variation with the aim of improving wetlands and the wildlife that relies on them.

But, even if Plan 2014 hasn’t been directly responsible for the flooding in recent years (plenty of homeowners will tell you at great length and volume that it is), the obvious point is that the structures and systems we built decades ago were planned around a certain level of spring rainfall — and those plans don’t reflect reality anymore.

 Ah, but surely this is just because Canada is terrible at building good, reliable infrastructure, right? (How are those high-speed-rail plans going?) Not so much. Japan is no slouch when it comes to building infrastructure — they probably build too much, if that’s possible — and still their flood controls were no match this month for the heaviest rains in the country’s history.

This is what climate change looks like. The coming decades are going to be pretty bleak on this score, because global emissions are still closer to the worst-case scenario than the best-case. Given what we know about the physics of all this, it seems that, even if we stopped polluting tomorrow, we’d be in for a lot more warming and extreme weather, because they’ve already been baked into the Earth’s systems.

And that makes infrastructure planning a challenge, to say the least. How do you design a bridge or a sewer to withstand a 100-year storm when nobody in human history has ever had to live through the kind of storms that are coming our way? How do you plan for a climate that is going to be radically different from the present — and is rapidly accelerating away from what we know and understand?

Engineers are very smart people, and maybe they’ll solve these problems, but they aren’t miracle workers, and they don’t work for free. That’s where the cynicism of saying that “people shouldn’t have to pay more for the environment” is clear. One way or another, people are going to pay more thanks to climate change. They can either pay a carbon tax and try to mitigate the damage in coming decades or pay more to build and rebuild the infrastructure that keeps them safe. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates that will cost $5.3 billion per year going forward, and that money has got to come from somewhere.

The federal-election campaign may have been underwhelming on a number of fronts, but it is at least evident that the political parties vying for your vote have some pretty clear differences on climate policy. If you don’t think the election has been about any one issue in particular, you can always make it about something as you look at your ballot with a pencil in your hand.

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