At a time when his Greenbelt-paving government is turning Ontario into a climate mitigation backwater, the looming urban flood risk isn’t sparking any neurons in the cerebral cortex of Premier Doug Ford.
The incurious and indifferent Doug either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that climate change increases the likelihood of more frequent and severe rainfalls, heightening the risk of urban flooding.
Yellow-vested Doug will be issuing a thumbs-up to bulldozers paving highways and cul de sacs throughout the Greenbelt, opening up more cities and towns to flash floods, even as the list of water calamities in Ontario grows in size and frequency.
A Niagara Falls of horizontal flash floods is imminent if the past decade is any predictor.
Scenes of streets turned into canals fail to capture the horrendous reality that torrential rains force sewer systems to back up into residential basements.
But more critical to Doug and his backroom deal-making associates is dividing up slices of graft from the Ford Family’s quadruple-cheesecake specialty: influence, contributions to Doug’s party/cabal and down-payments and mortgages on single-family homes wrapped around a golf course or three.
A backwater is a place or condition in which no development or progress is taking place. Doug turns the definition on its head: his pigheaded majority offers no measures to alleviate environmental degradation while over-the-top development spawns more calamities.
A Ford model home in Ontario is a sprawling basemented bungalow with a dramatic circular driveway, its sloping backyard overlooking a ravine, anxious owners hoping the crick don’t rise.
Against this backdrop, Doug Ford wants to add 50,000 new homes to the Greenbelt, undermining its purpose, which includes absorbing rainwater to reduce the risk of flooding.
Major urban floodwater events with insured losses over $80 million each in the past decade include Thunder Bay (2012), Hamilton (2012), Burlington (2014), Windsor and Tecumseh (2016 and 2017) and Toronto (2013 and 2018).
A record-breaking rainfall in Toronto in 2013, which caused both urban and river flooding, was Ontario’s costliest disaster in history. Insurance claims from 7,000 flooded basements and 900,000 blacked-out households amounted to about $1 billion.
Meanwhile, Southern Ontario continues to lose green space and wetlands that help control flooding. The province has not even evaluated many wetlands and designated them for protection.
But still waters don’t run too deep when it comes to this Premier’s modus operandi. He has little interest in what happens to a residential building after substantial completion is issued.
Homeowners need guidance from the province on what they can do to reduce the threats to their properties, as well as effective incentives to adopt preventive measures, but such measures don’t yield campaign contributions.
Many homeowners aren’t aware that they may have increased risk of flooding. Many people who buy new homes are not protected from sewer backups due to vague requirements in Ontario’s Building Code for backwater valves.
It was a key concern of the Provincial Auditor General in her 2022 report that generally escaped notice of the Ontario press pack.
“A backwater valve costs about $250 to install during construction of a new home, while renovating to add one costs thousands, and damage to a flooded home can cost more than $40,000 to repair,” said Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk in her 2022 report. “An update to the Ontario Building Code to require a backwater valve in all newly built homes is a sensible measure that could save many Ontarians tens of thousands of dollars and months of headache caused by urban flooding.”
The province is well aware of the need to do more on this issue, said Lysyk, but provincial co-ordination on responsibilities for reducing flooding from overwhelmed drainage systems is absent.
In her 2022 Annual Report, Lysyk said four provincial ministries have responsibilities in this area – Environment, Conservation and Parks, Natural Resources and Forestry, Municipal Affairs and Housing and Infrastructure – but gaps remain.
“These four ministries need to develop a provincial framework for reducing the risk of urban flooding that clearly identifies and assigns roles and responsibilities.
“All Ontarians who live in cities, towns and smaller communities may be at risk of flooding,” said Lysyk. “The Province could make changes to reduce the risk – by updating the Building Code and improving urban flood risk mapping tools, and better protecting the green spaces and natural spaces, such as wetlands, that provide natural protection for communities.”
If installed at the time of construction, backwater valves are a relatively inexpensive safeguard, but are a costly retrofit.
Incredibly, Ontario’s Building Code is ambiguous as to backwater valve requirements. Only 27 per cent of chief building officials surveyed by the Auditor require backwater valves for all new homes with basements, while 37 per cent do not require them for any homes, and 37 per cent require them in some.
Ford’s hyperactive statute production line has been uncharacteristically slow to generate an edict.
Although it is updating the Building Code, the municipal affairs ministry has not yet proposed changes to clarify when backwater valves are to be mandated.
The government’s 2018 Environment Plan committed to consult on tax policies to help homeowners protect their homes, said Lysyk, and to work with real estate and insurance industries to educate homeowners on flood risk and protection. At the time of her 2022 audit, she said neither of these commitments had been fulfilled.
More than three of four municipalities surveyed by the AG are unable to accurately map urban flood risk areas, in part due to a lack of provincial elevation data.
“The province is providing inconsistent guidance to municipalities on whether to use projected climate change data. As a result, many continue to rely on historical data. Infrastructure and buildings designed based on historical climate data may not be able to withstand future precipitation patterns.”
Someone should wake up Ford and let him know urban flooding as opposed to river flooding is the most common form of serious water damage in Ontario.
While less than three per cent of Ontario’s population live in areas that may be subject to river flooding, more than 70 per cent of the province is urbanized. All Ontarians who live in a developed area, regardless of proximity to a river or creek, may be at risk of flood disaster in the fiefdom known as Ford Nation.