By Nathanael Couperus and Natalija Fisher
Cities across Canada are looking for solutions to reduce their vulnerabilities to infrastructure deficits, rapid urban growth, and climate change. Planning for uncertainties requires a diverse portfolio of solutions to decrease the quantity and improve the quality of stormwater entering local drainage basins.
The stormwater community understands that climate change will exacerbate urban overland flooding and that low- impact development (LID) techniques are low-cost and less-intrusive options for managing stormwater. But is this message getting across to municipal engineers and asset management teams?
The shift to decentralized stormwater infrastructure is slowly but steadily gaining momentum according to Lincoln Kan, manager of environmental services at the City of Mississauga. “Currently, we have two to three LID pilot projects. […] Mississauga is fortunate because council is generally in favour of the change if there is a benefit and it makes economic sense for our situation.”
New financing tools
The City of Mississauga recently entered the growing list of cities across Canada—including West Vancouver, Surrey, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, London, Waterloo, Kitchener, and Markham, among others—that have introduced a stormwater or drainage fee. Since stormwater managers often have to compete with tangible municipal services like policing, housing, and parks, the stormwater utility (or stormwater charge) establishes a dedicated municipal division that administers a fee to properties updating infrastructure and building a resilient response to rising flood waters.
These municipalities are combating the increased costs of handling stormwater by seeking new financing tools and considering decentralized methods of managing water where it falls. The Mississauga stormwater charge, slated for 2016, will fund capital projects, operations, and maintenance to the stormwater management system, as well as future infrastructure repairs. Justifying new stormwater charges or levies is a challenge that must be embraced so investments are not mistaken for financial burdens.
“We are not as advanced as we need to be in terms of full-cost accounting for stormwater,” said Jonathan Grant, manager of research at WaterTAP. “Being able to calculate stormwater detention on site in real time would inform more accurate price signals [and] drive further innovation.” Remaining optimistic, he added, “Ontario is home to a substantial group of emerging technology companies—from sensors to LID equipment—that will help measure and manage stormwater.”
Barriers to implementation
Flood and drought extremes have brought media and insurance industry attention to the necessity of protecting our water resources. The extra scrutiny has put pressure on the status quo and raised awareness about the role of LID in building resilience and reducing risk. However, awareness is still a long way from adoption.
Even with new funding mechanisms in place, there is no guarantee levies will be used to fund decentralized stormwater innovations, as opposed to being earmarked for replacing century-old infrastructure. Engineers tend toward methods and infrastructure that have stood the test of time as they are tasked with keeping the public safe and keeping costs low. In this risk-averse environment, innovative new stormwater solutions face barriers to market entry. Barriers to implementation include: perceived operating cost; a lack of long-term performance data; and a general lack of knowledge about LID benefits among decision-makers, municipal staff, and property owners.
Hans Schreier, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, said he believes the early adopters are finally able to demonstrate success to the risk averse. “We are at the breaking point and saying, ‘Here, here, here engineers have done it.’ [Engineers] are not as liable as [they] thought and the reliability is better than [they] thought.”
Changes in the basic values of the industry are slower to come by than advances in science and technology. It is precisely this gap between stormwater advancements and perception that successful investors can exploit. While advantageous on the one hand, the disconnect between the general public and decision-makers limits buy in and makes it harder to prioritize investing in stormwater infrastructure as opposed to aboveground municipal services.
Innovating in a system that is governed by risk aversion is a difficult task. Finding solutions to overcome the fear of change is something Christine Zimmer, manager of water protection and restoration at the Credit Valley Conservation Authority (CVCA) in Southern Ontario, has developed proficiency. The key to a shift seems not to be at the drawing desk but by engaging with partners and the public.
Building climate resilient cities
The development of a stormwater program, utility, or charge is better implemented with intentional effort for transparency, education, collaboration, and creativity. “Creating an atmosphere of transparency is important,” Zimmer said. “After installing LID, customers need to know, ‘What was the bang for my buck?’ Long-term monitoring results will demonstrate that LID works and it will encourage others to adopt.
“A key to overcoming barriers is making sure that LID project objectives meet stakeholder needs and developing monitoring around those objectives,” she added. Her CVCA team worked closely with 75 partners and installed 60 LID sites over different land-use sectors to identify the barriers and the solutions to adopting LID on a broader scale. She pointed to roadside LID monitoring results, captured during an extreme storm, as compelling data that helped inform Mississauga council of the effectiveness of LID in reducing the peak of storms. Unfortunately, there is no out-of-the- box solution to setting up a stormwater utility. Public opinion, let alone geology, land use, and climate, vary across Canadian municipalities. One region’s stormwater solutions might not fit in another’s implementation context.
Understanding threats and the change they demand is vital for cities to make smart choices about replacing stormwater infrastructure and reducing the risk of flooding. The CVCA has partnered with Canadian universities, the Institute of Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR), and Engineers Canada to study how climate change influences municipal vulnerability. The forthcoming Infrastructure Performance and Risk Assessment guidance document will help municipalities make smart choices in addressing the $160-billion infrastructure deficit and building climate resilience.
By creating a flexible system, utilities can respond to storms and droughts, and be proactive in response to emergencies. Two factors are already making a business case for improving stormwater infrastructure: the frequency of extreme events and stormwater fees. Adopting new technologies, such as decentralized stormwater management infrastructure, will come down to a shift in attitudes.
Stormwater is a resource. Developing scalable stormwater solutions that move from threats to opportunities will require exactly that kind of thinking.
Nathanael Couperus is a junior water resources engineer-in-training at Ainley Group. Natalija Fisher is the director of strategic initiatives at RainGrid, a published author on water security, and an advisor to the Water Youth Network.