In the wake of massive spring flooding in Quebec, New Brunswick, and parts of Ontario, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is warning of more of the same in an era of climate disruption, while a researcher in Quebec says it’s time for the province to rethink its relationship with water.
In a visit yesterday with flood evacuees in Gatineau, Trudeau said Canadians must face a “new reality”, warning that weather disasters like spring flooding “will be happening more and more frequently” as a result of climate change. “It’s time to start thinking about how we’re going to adapt, how we’re going to help people,” he said.
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The Ottawa Citizen said about 1,000 Gatineau homes had been affected by flooding, and 476 people from 223 households had been evacuated. Across the river in Ottawa, where flooding is expected to peak Sunday or Monday, emergency and protective services manager Anthony Di Monte said the city had ordered 280,000 sandbags, filled 150,000 of them, and put in a supplementary order for 100,000 more.
In Montreal, meanwhile, Alexandrine Bisaillon, a researcher with climate change think tank Ouranos, said Quebec may have to change a notion that dates back to 17th century New France—that water is something that humanity can control. Now, “it’s a question of whether we want to be masters of water or live with water,” she told The Canadian Press, in a story republished by CBC.
That thinking runs up against some deep-seated cultural beliefs and habits.
“Quebec’s history, mythology and culture are intertwined with its rivers and lakes,” CP notes. In New France, “land was distributed to settlers in long, rectangular strips with access to the river. More than 300 years later, Quebec entered its modern era in large part through the development of its massive hydroelectric potential.”
But now, “as increasingly frequent spring floods force evacuations and damage property, Quebecers are being forced to adapt.”
University of Waterloo professor Jason Thistlethwaite said Quebec can expect worse flooding as winter conditions become more volatile. “Sudden waves of warm weather followed by quick drops in temperatures increase the risk of ice accumulating on the rivers in the winter,” CP explains. “The ice jams act as a dam, holding back water, and when the ice begins to melt and move, the dam bursts.”
Which points to a major change in practice that begins with a change in mindset. “Across Quebec, prime locations are often by a river or lake. Restaurants and tourist areas boast of a view of the water. But Thistlethwaite said Quebec might want to adopt a practice known as ‘making room for the river’,” CP notes. “Instead of looking at the shoreline as high-priced property on which to build, Quebecers should consider returning these areas to nature and turning them into parks, summer sporting facilities, or public land.”
CBC said that thinking is reflected in a new provincial flood compensation plan  that limits payouts to 50% of a home’s value, to a maximum of $100,000. “Once damage exceeds that amount, people can no longer claim compensation for that home,” CP writes, “but they can receive up to $200,000 to relocate to an area outside the flood zone.”
Thistlethwaite said that plan is “very progressive of the government of Quebec, and they should be emulated across Canada.” But the Globe and Mail points to another significant barrier—the vast majority of Canadians don’t have access to flood plain maps that would help them assess their level of risk, where they currently live or before they move.
“Flood maps—cartographic depictions of areas that are likely to flood under certain conditions—are invaluable sources of information for homeowners and civic officials,” the Globe states . “In the United States, England, and France, one can enter a postal code into a government website and quickly assess a property’s susceptibility to flooding.”
But “the vast majority of Canadians do not have easy access to such maps. Partly due to government cutbacks—and the reluctance of municipalities to discourage development—all too often the best many homeowners can do is visit a local government office and dust off a decades-old relic intended for engineers or hydrologists.”
UW’s Thistlethwaite told the Globe he had recently worked with colleagues to complete a review of nearly 700 Canadian flood maps, determining that many of them were old, only a few were available in electronic form, and most weren’t accessible to the public. “The results are not impressive,” he said.
“And for as many as a third of Canadians living in flood-prone areas, there are no flood maps to consult,” the Globe notes. “Little wonder, then, that rising floodwaters catch so many Canadians off guard. According to a 2016 estimate by analytics firm LexisNexis Risk Solutions, there are 8.6 million residential addresses in Canada. More than a fifth of those—1.8 million—are susceptible to flooding. By another estimate, as much as 10% of Canada’s population lives in high-risk flood zones. However alarming that may seem, the bigger problem is that nearly all of those at risk don’t know it.”
The paper cites a 2017 UW study of 2,300 homeowners, only 6% of whom realized they lived in designated flood risk areas.