Ontario under water: Why the southwest needs to prepare for extreme weather

Windsor experienced two 100-year storms just one year apart — what can the federal government do to make sure it’s ready for more?
By Mary Baxter - Published on Oct 18, 2019
sandbags in Windsor
Since the mid-2000s, Windsor has seen several high-intensity rainstorms. (iStock.com/Steven_Kriemadis)

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Every week until the 2019 Canadian election, TVO.org will look at the federal issues that matter to Ontarians. This week, we tackle climate change — and flooding, in particular — in a three-part series. Click here to read Part 1; click here to read Part 2.

WINDSOR — In June 2010, Adriano Ciotoli was hosting his 30th birthday party at his century-old home in Windsor. His wife and friends noticed that it was raining, and then, suddenly, “the entire road had actually flooded over,” Ciotoli says. “My wife asked me to check the basement just in case — even though we've never had issues before.” At the bottom of the steps, Ciotoli found water nearly a foot deep. The party was put on pause as guests helped carry the couple’s belongings to safety.

Four years later, in 2014, another storm brought another basement flood. This time water swamped the electrical outlets. “We had to call the fire department,” says Ciotoli, who owns a festival and events company.

Since the mid-2000s, Windsor has seen several high-intensity rainstorms. One storm in September 2016 dropped 230 millimetres of rain in 24 hours, prompting the mayor to declare a state of emergency. In August 2017, another storm brought more than 200 millimetres of rain, causing $175 million in damage to homes.

“We can't ever say any one event is climate change, but if you look at the two storms we had in 2016 and 2017, those both exceeded our one-in-a-hundred-year storm-fall and rainfall events,” says Karina Richters, Windsor’s supervisor of environmental sustainability and climate change. “And those were less than 11 months apart.”

This year, record-breaking water levels in the Detroit River and surrounding lakes have caught the eye of Windsor’s mayor, Drew Dilkens. The city is “essentially as flat as a pancake and surrounded by water,” he says, and, if another high-intensity rainstorm takes place, “truly there's nowhere for the water to go. We're really needing Noah's Ark at that point.”

Like many cities across the province, Windsor will have to spend big to bolster its storm-sewer infrastructure —$500 million or more, Dilkens estimates. In some areas, the sewers are more than 100 years old and lined with brick (instead of concrete), which, as it ages, can cause leaks or blockages. Some are combined with sanitary sewers, meaning that heavy rainfall can lead to basement backups.

To help with the expense, Windsor has turned to the federal Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund. Introduced in 2018, the DMAF is meant to help communities fortify infrastructure in response to climate change. This year, the city was granted roughly a third of the $90 million price tag for a project to upgrade sewer infrastructure in the city’s east end. This summer, it applied again, this time to support an $80 million project. The funding program has been “a great start,” says Dilkens, “but we'll need to see continued support in the federal budget in order to undertake the magnitude of work that has to happen.”

The fund, administered by Infrastructure Canada, has already granted 60 per cent of its $2 billion allocation, says Bill Karsten, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. “We need all parties to commit to a more robust long-term [plan],” he says.

The federation has asked for at least $1 billion per year for 20 years. It also wants the federal government to give money directly to municipalities. Karsten says that removing the provinces from the process would speed it up. “Does that funding flow go through provinces quicker in some than in others? The answer is yes,” he says.

None of major party platforms reach that funding target. TVO.org spoke with the candidates in Windsor West, who say flooding is top of mind for voters.

“We have a big issue,” says Henry Lau, the Conservative candidate. “Some people tell me they’ve been flooded nine times.” His party proposes spreading existing funds over 11 years, rather than the current eight. If elected, he says he’d introduce a private members’ bill to fund the city’s infrastructure improvements. He also says that the federal government should work with the insurance industry to find a way to introduce better rates for homeowners in high-risk areas.

Brian Masse, the NDP incumbent, says that cities need regular, sustained funding and that his party is considering policy that would see governments purchase properties prone to chronic flooding. “First and foremost, though,” he says, “we need to stop doing unnecessary development [in flood-prone areas].” The NDP has committed $2.5 billion more than the current DMAF funding.

The Liberal platform says that, as part of the current $181 billion federal infrastructure program, it would invest $1 billion more over 10 years for the DMAF.  The platform also addresses municipalities’ concern about the timeliness of funding delivery by promising to require provinces and municipalities to identify infrastructure priorities in the next two years. Any infrastructure-program funding left unspent by the end of 2021 would be redirected to municipalities.

The party also pledges $150 million for floodplain mapping. Liberal candidate Sandra Pupatello says that her party would introduce a five-year interest-free loan program that would provide up to $40,000 to adapt homes to climate change. She also says that a Liberal government would establish public insurance to ensure coverage in high-risk areas. Working with municipalities, she adds, is critical: “We're intending to come back again with more partnerships like this.”

Jason Thistlethwaite, a professor in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development at the University of Waterloo, says that none of the party platforms go far enough. Governments such as those in the United Kingdom and Germany, he notes, specifically prioritize flooding and public awareness. “Those softer elements oftentimes have the greater bang for your buck in terms of some protection,” he says, “because you're leveraging money in a way that increases the number of people that are engaged with these programs.”

Thistlethwaite also takes aim at the DMAF. “It’s like any other infrastructure program — it’s not risk-based” he says, adding that DMAF money often ends up in larger cities because “the smaller local communities just don't have the capacity or resources to be competitive and get some of these big grants.”

Dilkens says that Windsor has made progress in tackling the flood problem but that the work will go on for decades. The sewers “can't all be changed in five or 10 years,” he says. “Just practically, you can't do it — you couldn't get around the city if you did.” 

As for Ciotoli, he has spent more than $15,000 to waterproof his basement. He’s replaced walls, added a membrane to the foundation’s exterior, and installed a sump pump. But most of his neighbours continue to struggle, and he says they need help from elected officials. “It's unfortunate that [government policy] has become more reactive as opposed to preparing for something like this well in advance.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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