Hot on the heels of the country’s severe summer floods, Water Canada, along with co-hosts XCG Consultants and RWDI Inc., brought together a group of practitioners at the Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto to discuss and provide some insight on how to address infrastructure resiliency in the face of a changing climate.
After a tour of the grounds with general manager David Stonehouse—Evergreen Brick Works was built in a floodplain, but with great care (see “Flood on the Front Lines,” bit.ly/floodrespondCA)—Ron Haley, a senior consultant at XCG Consultants who specializes in risk assessment and management, opened the panel.
“The July 8 storm in Toronto not only emphasized the sensitivity of some of our infrastructure, but also the need to respond and prepare for those events,” he said. “Every municipality, especially the ones around the table here, is struggling with the very same issues: not enough resources in house; not enough money in the budgets to do a proper job or do what they would like to do. Things need to change.”
How much change is required? At which stage in climate-change planning are most municipalities? We began the panel by asking of our municipal representatives.
“We’re moving slowly toward low-impact development within the City of Hamilton, realizing that a mature downtown core with combined sewers is a real challenge in terms of fitting in additional infrastructure,” said Udo Ehrenberg, the City of Hamilton’s manager of infrastructure and source water planning. “We’re certainly engaged in the concept of developing a climate change strategy. While we don’t have one that is council-approved, it’s in the works. Out of necessity we have responded to the impact of climate change on stormwater services, but in terms of public consultation, and a council-endorsed plan, we’re not there yet.”
York Region is similar, said Mike Rabeau, the region’s manager of engineering. “We don’t have an official climate change policy, but climate change is addressed through our corporate strategic plan and sustainability strategy whereby goals are filtered down through departmental programs to achieve official plan requirements.”
Donna Serrati, manager of engineering and programs for waste management at the Region of Waterloo, said the region has a greenhouse gas reduction commitment, but not a climate change policy. Another participant said her jurisdiction is tackling climate change strategy. “We’re not going to call it a mitigation or adaptation strategy—we’re just calling it a strategy,” that participant said. “In the coming months, we’re trying to involve communities in our strategy development because they have a valuable role to play in the strategy. They have to help reduce flows, but they also need to know what to do when an emergency hits.”
Barriers to moving forward
Moving forward on a plan for adaptation can be difficult for many reasons. Not only does it involve cross-departmental planning, it requires carefully communicating plans, overcoming technical challenges, and navigating politics. What is the biggest challenge municipalities are facing in developing these plans?
“There are still some skeptics. Even before it was released, people started trashing the results of the imminent release of the next International Climate Change Panel report. On the political side, it’s actually not just local, but global politics that you’re fighting,” said one participant. “It comes right down to fear from people who understand that you might be increasing the standards, you might be building bigger sewers, and as soon as you build bigger sewers or stormwater ponds or anything like that, you’re not talking about a couple thousand dollars more, you’re talking about major cost increases.”
As we begin to better understand these events, Haley added, it’s important to bring climate change details into asset management plans. “That ties into the level of service. What are municipalities willing to accept?”
Design changes could become expensive, but they also have to be defined—and right now, many municipalities feel they’re in limbo when it comes to predicting what a changing climate demands of system design and capacity. Do we have enough intel and policy support to proceed with those recommendations?
The Environmental Commission of Ontario reports on environmental decision-making and how sister ministries fulfill policies and mandates—including climate change. “With climate change, the municipalities are the ones doing the heavy lifting within a provincial framework,” said deputy commissioner Ellen Schwartzel. “We’re interested in learning if you’ve got the frameworks and encouragement that you need. What are your barriers? What should be happening at the provincial level to help you in this uncharted terrain?”
Schwartzel said one issue is permissive language in provincial policy statements. While it’s enabling, it can miss the mark in terms of targets and goals. “Then you also need regulation, so that a single municipality isn’t singled out—and they can say ‘It’s not me increasing your taxes, it’s the province.’”
Convincing a council of the need to spend money on adjusting for climate change is another big challenge; therefore, properly managing perception through clearly defined terms is vital. There are a lot of words thrown around in relation to climate change, “mitigation” and “adaptation” chief among them.
“Every dollar you spend on mitigation is a dollar you’re not spending on adaptation. One, in my opinion, will produce a positive outcome, and the other one will basically not change the equation,” said Blair Feltmate, associate professor at the University of Waterloo’s school of environment, enterprise, and development.
Mike Lepage, a principal and meteorologist at RWDI, added: “Not only that, adaptation is an easy sell, because it has to be done anyways. The climate has always changed, and adaptation has always been necessary.”
Feltmate agreed. “Exactly. Let’s assume the climate wasn’t changing, but we have more impermeable surfaces within cities, and you’ve got more people packed into areas that used to forest and used to be fields. If nothing else, you’ve got to have an adaptation program in place to take care of that alone.”
Those impermeable surfaces are taking up greater area in growing cities, and ignoring that development can be dangerous. “For years we’ve focused getting the right piece or size of pipe in the right place and elevation, because everything’s got to flow downhill—but we’ve forgotten our overland flow systems, and that’s where an extreme event hurts us the most,” one participant said.
“Overland flow is a major issue in older neighbourhoods that simply were never designed for it,” Christine Hill, a partner at XCG Consultants, said. “The cost of fixing these neighbourhoods can be tremendous, so municipalities need to prioritize. They need to figure out which neighbourhoods and systems they can and can’t fix, and develop a long-term remediation plan with funding that makes sense.”
To combat overland flow issues, Rabeau said, you’ve got to start working with the development industry. “If you don’t identify and maintain natural elements like headwater drainage features, storm and groundwater will end up plaguing municipal and private infrastructure. We have started discussions with our conservation authorities to help ensure that the development industry is recognizing groundwater features, headwater protection, and natural flood patterns, and how to respect those paths.”
Some participants lamented the loss of funding sources to coordinate and model their various systems and data for sewers, storms, and watercourses. “Municipalities are left with what they can do, and that’s modelling sanitary and storm systems on a sub-catchment on a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood basis. That’s where some of the development funding comes in,” one participant offered.
In recent years, the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) has revealed that water-related damage claims now out-value fire damages claims. In fact, IBC’s preliminary estimate of insured property damage after the July 8 storm in the Greater Toronto Area is more than $850 million, making it the costliest natural disaster in Ontario’s history.
Climate has always changed, Lepage said. “Is that really the main driver [for flood claims]? I’ve read technical papers about the effect of demographics on insurance claims for flooding, for instance. Clearly there are other issues. You need accident management anyway, and planning for again infrastructure regardless of climate change. Are big changes coming due to global warming, or are the changes due to demographics and, as a result, bigger inflows and outflows?”
Feltmate is currently working on attribution analyses to determine what percentage of claims made in several Canadian provinces can be explained based on factors such as weather, finished versus unfinished basements, and the age of a home/municipal infrastructure.
“We’re looking at about six or seven factors right now to try to determine the percentage explanation of claims attributable to several variables. This has never been done. Already we’re finding things that are counterintuitive,” he said. “For example, in certain geographies, the age of a house seems unrelated to a predisposition for basement flooding.”
Schwartzel asked if the team is considering pervious and impervious surfaces. “Yes. We’re trying to get data on the permeability of surfacing within the localities of claims and factor that into risk, but I’m not sure how rigourous that analysis can be,” Feltmate replied. “When you go out to do the analysis, it’s not so simple. It might end up being quasi-anecdotal.”
Insurance companies want to see adaptation on the federal agenda, but with numbers like $850 million for Toronto claims after July 8 and $1.7 billion after the floods in southern Alberta, it’s not hard to see why they’re seriously discussing exiting the home insurance market.
“Beyond what’s in the media, the situation is quite dire,” Feltmate said. “The amount being paid out for property and casualty insurance losses has exceeded the amount coming in the door through premiums in the past few years in Canada. In some places, we may be approaching an uninsurable housing market, which could lead to a hit for the mortgage market—that is, you can’t qualify for a mortgage without home insurance.”
How do we make infrastructure more resilient to diminish the magnitude of flood-related claims? Feltmate said he’s involved with a Cooperators-initiated program that brings insurers together with the federal government, various premiers, and mayors to help government understand what it needs to do to weather-harden infrastructure to help ensure a viable housing market in otherwise flood vulnerable regions of Canada.
Ehrenberg wondered if IBC’s municipal risk assessment tool is gaining traction with those groups. “A lot of municipalities are interested; it seems like it has potential to be very useful,” he said. The tool combines insurance claims data, detailed information about buried municipal infrastructure and climate modelling to predict where catastrophic sewer backups, which can cause millions of dollars in damage, are most likely to occur. More importantly, perhaps, it also helps municipal governments devote funds from their limited capital budgets to the areas that need the most attention and establish or alter development priorities accordingly. The City of Hamilton is working with IBC on a pilot project that uses the tool.
Despite demands from the insurance sector, cash-strapped municipalities must still find revenue streams—and a lot of that potential revenue comes from developers. Municipalities are finding themselves between a rock and a hard place. After the two big summer floods, mainstream media began to report a call for updated floodplain maps to include provisions for climate change and predicted future events. But Feltmate said speaking to mayors and councils about updating floodplain maps is not easy.
“Often, they do not want to hear this,” he said. Even if past data shows no flooding in potential areas of development, updating maps might indicate red zones and foil building plans that would otherwise yield new property tax revenue. Homeowners in newly designated danger zones can become “snipers in the audience” because their homes might be devalued, he added. “If you’ve put a red mark on my home and I can’t sell it, it very quickly becomes information I don’t want. Failure to act and ignoring a real threat almost always leads to a management by disaster outcome.”
A new way of funding adaptation
As the entities responsible for providing a continued level of service, municipalities need to look at different funding models, Serrati said. “A utility-based model could be part of the solution to the funding problem. We have development charges and user rates, but funding at a municipal level needs another look. We need to do some innovative things to change the way money flows to the municipality.”
Stonehouse suggested full-cost pricing. “For decades we’ve been subsidizing water—how about you pay for what you use? It’s perfect for the market libertarians. You don’t use it, you don’t pay for it.”
For water and wastewater services, that solution would be easy—it’s measurable, Ehrenberg pointed out. “But how do you measure stormwater? Our council is very cautious about moving toward a dedicated stormwater utility or rate, but they’re generally open to equity. For instance, the big box stores use very little water but discharge a lot of stormwater. They pay for their stormwater service based on the water that they use, so that’s an inequity.”
Hill referenced the City of Kitchener, which has moved to a stormwater utility format (see “User Fees That Please,” bit.ly/stormcredit). “They measure the impermeable area on a lot-by-lot basis, and property owners are charged based on that calculation. Credits are available to residents if stormwater management control measures are put into place. The system is intended to create a separate funding mechanism for stormwater projects. The City has found that there is now greater equity between the residential and ICI sectors in how stormwater management projects are funded.”
As the roundtable came to a close, Feltmate issued a challenge to the participants.
“People talk about flooding in Calgary and Toronto, but they often don’t appreciate that we could just as easily be talking about flooding in Truro, Nova Scotia or Kamloops, or anywhere,” he said. “As soon as possible, we need to implement adaptation measures that are practical, meaningful, cost-effective, and timely—every day we don’t act may prove to be the day we find ourselves in harm’s way.”
What are the two or three things that municipalities could work toward that are actually achievable and have some degree of broad applicability?
Rabeau shared some of York Region’s plans for private-side infrastructure. “We’re pushing development for stronger and leak-free pipes and systems, from large sewers to private laterals in conjunction with proper storm management. We want to make sure there are no cross connections and that permeable surfaces are constructed where required.”
Adjusting the building code could also be a challenge with a reasonable outcome. “In January, the building code will change in relation to water conservation measures, but the conservation benefit from a capacity standpoint is only as good as your receiving system—if it’s leaking, the benefit will be lost.”
In February 2013, the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction released a report called Urban Flooding in Canada, which looks at lot-side risk reduction through voluntary retrofit programs, code interpretation, and bylaws. The report explores the use of backwater valves to protect homes against flooding caused by return flow of sewage waters. The group discussed how these valves might be better promoted among homeowners.
“Even if backwater valves are not mandated through building codes, you can work with real estate agents to make this feature attractive to homebuyers,” Feltmate said.
Ehrenberg said the City of Hamilton’s Protective Plumbing Program, which gives homeowners grants to install backwater valves, has been very successful—and it includes the education required to maintain it. “How do you promote such a program? If you have an alarm on your home, I imagine your insurance rate goes down. Could a backwater valve provide the same sort of benefit?”
Whatever the method or approach, protecting constituents and managing the politics of climate change in a municipality is proving to be a great challenge. Haley applauded the insurance industry for showing some leadership, but called upon municipalities to step up.
“Things need to change,” he said. “We need to try and tackle this problem, and there’s an awfully big role for the province and the municipalities to play.” WC
Kerry Freek is Water Canada’s editor-at-large and WaterTAP Ontario’s manager of marketing and communications. This article appears in the November/December 2013 issue.
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