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How we can take action on flood risk – not leave it to Burlington’s individual homeowners and backflow valves

Don’t overdevelop and keep water at source

Insight & Analysis — As we approach the four-year anniversary of the Burlington flood on August 4, 2014, it’s an appropriate time to take stock of what’s been done, and how far we still need to go.

What’s happened so far:

  • The city increased spending on stormwater infrastructure by $20 million over 10 years to reduce water flow blockages, for example larger creek culverts and creek channel improvements. That only slightly accelerates what we would have been doing, and primarily addresses flood effects, not root causes.
  • The post-flood report released in phases in 2015 and 2017 contained fifteen key recommendations, most of which are ongoing or just started.
  • A grant program was established to assist homeowners with disconnection of foundation drains from the sewer system, and installation of back flow valves and sump pumps. While helpful, this addresses leaves flood mitigation to the individual homeowner.
  • The home inspection program to identify flood entry areas offered in partnership with University of Waterloo and the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation has seen only 92 participants for their free program since Jan. 2018. This also leaves responsibility for flooding on the homeowner.

We must do better. We can’t assume severe weather is a “one-off.”

According to a Globe and Mail editorial in May 2017, “Flooding is the most costly hazard in terms of urban property damage, and has surpassed fire and theft as the principle source of property insurance claims.”

Insured damages associated with the Burlington flood alone are estimated to be in excess of $90 million with many people under- or un-insured.

A plan that addresses root causes

We need a plan to be prepared for flooding that deals with root causes, more than effects. We also need to treat our trees, greenspace, creeks and waterfront as valuable resources that have a role to play in stormwater management and reducing flood risk.

We must take a more integrated, city-wide (not individual homeowner) approach to managing storm water and reducing flood risk. The current approach that’s largely focused on increasing the capacity of stormwater systems is limited – and this runoff goes directly into our creeks and lake, a prime source of drinking water. We need to adopt new tools and approaches.

Responsible growth, retaining water at source, restoring a citizen’s voice on the waterfront:

There are two key actions we can take: approve responsible growth, not overdevelopment;  and retain water at source through low-impact development.

We also need to restore a citizen’s voice on waterfront issues, and expand the mandate to include stormwater runoff into our lake.

As your mayor I will support measures to reduce flooding causes, and effects at the city level by:

  1. Advocating responsible growth, not overdevelopment.

The 2018 Conservation Halton Watershed Report Card grades Burlington an F for “poor” or “very poor” for its surface water quality, forest conditions (our tree canopy) and the amount of our paved and hard surfaces. Hard surfaces increase the amount of water run-off and flooding. These ratings are exactly the same as the Watershed Report Card published in 2013.

We can reduce runoff by reducing hard surfaces and adding greespace through measures to:

  • Create more building setbacks, ending lot-line to lot-line hard surface coverage
  • Set minimum parkland access standards, which don’t currently exist
  • Set tree canopy targets, which don’t currently exist

Trees, parkland and greenspace around buildings provide natural ways to absorb stormwater before it ends up in creeks and stormwater pipes.

  1. Keeping water at source through low-impact development

The city’s Sustainable Development guidelines on low impact development are voluntary, with the incentive of an award. We need stronger incentives, in partnership with grant programs at other levels of government. And we need to lead in terms of our own infrastructure. Leading low-impact development includes measures like:

  • Naturalized area in parking lots
  • Water absorbing sidewalks and traffic medians
  • Larger courtyards in new developments
  • Effectively treating run-off that goes into our lakes to reduce pollution entering our waterfront
  • Reasonable incentives for the private sector to reconfigure the paved footprint of developments to allow more water to either be stored or go directly into the ground

Restore Waterfront Advisory Committee

Finally, we need to restore a citizen’s voice on issues that affect our waterfront and watershed. Stormwater not contained at source through low-impact development currently flows with all its potential pollutants into our waterfront, including beside public areas such as Spencer Smith Park’s sand beach.

This mayor and council promised the Waterfront Access and Protection Advisory Committee in the 2010 election, then quietly axed the committee in a 6-1 vote two years later.

I will reinstate the citizen’s Waterfront Advisory Committee, and expand the mandate to include water quality, creeks and stormwater runoff into lakes. I will also restore the city’s relationship with the Waterfront Trail organization and oppose any sale of city-owned waterfront property (this mayor and council voted 6-1 to sell waterfront property between Market and St. Paul St to private homeowners).

Action on flood risk

As your mayor, I will ensure that we prepare for the future with a comprehensive plan for storm water management, in partnership with residents, other levels of government, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the McMaster Centre for Climate Change and the development industry. We’ll develop a city-wide approach that addresses causes, not just effects at the home-owner level.

We need to treat our trees, parks, greenspaces, creeks and Lake Ontario as invaluable green infrastructure, and protect and increase these resources. We need to restore a citizen’s voice on our waterfront.

Together, we can do more to reduce flood risk.

Written by Marianne Meed Ward

A Better Burlington began in 2006 after my neighbours said they felt left out of city decisions, learning about them only after they’d been made.

As journalist for 22 years, I thought “I can do something about that” and a website and newsletter were born. They’ve taken various forms and names over the years, but the intent remains: To let you know what’s happening at City Hall before decisions are made, so you can influence outcomes for A Better Burlington.

The best decisions are made when elected representatives tap the wisdom of our community members, and welcome many different perspectives.This site allows residents to comment and debate with each other; our Commenting Guidelines established in 2016 aim to keep debate respectful.

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  1. Please consider letting people build their new houses with the basement floors a couple of feet higher. i will guarantee there will be no flooding and as a precaution to u/k rising water levels as have occurred the past couple of years. It will save millions in future costs to the city. The OP now directs municipalities to safeguard from possible disasters when considering new development, caused by climate changes. Check out the above photo with the floating furniture and I think it makes the problem obvious. Solving the problem for the older homes is a bit more difficult.

  2. I agree with all you said, Marianne. There is another item you could add. Water pressure backup sump pumps are proven to work when the power fails and when the battery of an emergency backup sump pump dies. It works by using city water (which is maintained during a storm by the generators at the water plant) to suck up sump water using the “venturi” effect similar to cars that have carburetors. This is ideal for people who go away for a time longer than a couple of days and only have someone check the house once in a while. I have tried to get the Region to provide a rebate for the installation, which is about the same cost as a battery powered sump pump (around $750 installed), with no luck. I also talked to the City Department of Development and Stormwater Engineering with no response. I am happy to give product details and costs to anyone who wants to install one without a rebate. I also have a solution using a 120 VAC power inverter connected to a car battery that will power the sump pump and a refrigerator for as long as the vehicle has gas to run the engine to charge the battery. This worked great for me when the power failed last year in May during a week of rain. You have to be home to hook it up though.

  3. This all sounds nice (flood prevention) for those in flood areas but where will the money come from to pay for all this as our taxes are already too high so higher taxes are not acceptable. What will all this cost per year and how will budget be balanced with inflation only growth per year?

  4. Marianne, great article on storm water management ideas to tackle the roots. I agree with you across the board. The city is pathetic.

    My experience is that none of them listen.

    Keep the issues analysis and management ideas coming. You are standing out from the others every day you do this.

    It’s called leadership and transparency about what you see as a problem, and want to do about it in concrete terms.

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