Flood governance in Canada: Who’s minding the store?

2 January 18, 2016 at 1:42 pm by

iStock_000010563351_SmallA recent article published in The Guardian about flood governance in the UK got me thinking about the issue here at home. And while I wouldn’t go as far as that article and call the oversight and management of flood in Canada a mess, I would say that the diverse, multi-tiered, sometimes almost ad-hoc nature of flood management and oversight in Canada is problematic on at least a couple of fronts.

First, consider the number of ministries, agencies, departments, authorities, councils and so on that are responsible for managing flood in many provinces.

Take Ontario for instance. Depending on location and type of event being considered (eg. fluvial or riverine vs. pluvial or urban), flood in the province is managed by no fewer than 36 conservation authorities (with the addition of Conservation Ontario as an umbrella organization), the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources, and a total of 444 municipalities of the upper, lower and two-tier variety. One must also consider the federal government, which is responsible for some waterways in the province (such as the Trent-Severn, Rideau Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway) as well as floodplain mapping in First Nations/Aboriginal communities. On top of this, one must also include the owners of private flood management infrastructure, of which there are a surprisingly large number.

Across the rest of Canada, there is a similar dog’s breakfast of provincial ministries, federal, provincial and municipal agencies and departments, basin and watershed planning and advisory councils and private flood management infrastructure owners, with all having varying levels of (sometimes contrasting and conflicting) responsibilities and authority. (Against this backdrop, a comparatively simple task like collecting all existing flood maps in the country and putting them in one place becomes very complex and time consuming.)

Beginning with the big picture, in many jurisdictions in Canada there is little or no coordination between those responsible for riverine flooding, municipal storm water management, and groundwater monitoring. And while there are sound reasons why these areas have largely worked independently from each other over the decades, there are a growing number of reasons why the three need to work together more often going forward (particularly as our understanding of flood is improved and the interconnections between riverine flooding, storm water management and groundwater monitoring are better understood and appreciated).

Along with the macro side of the silo issue is the problem of silos within silos.

In most jurisdictions (federal, provincial, municipal and watershed) there is no single person and no single agency or department that is in charge of flood. What’s more, within larger entities, there are separate departments or groups that deal with flood mapping, hydrology and flood modelling, flood defense, conservation and disaster assistance.

The long and short of it is that players in the flood arena in each province often aren’t talking amongst themselves. And, for the most part, they aren’t really talking to the federal government about flood, either.

On this second point, at least part of the problem lies with the winding-down of the federal Flood Damage Reduction Program (FDRP) some years ago. This leads us to the second major issue with flood management/oversight in Canada.

According to an archived webpage on the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s website, the FDRP “…represented a significant change in approach from an ad hoc structural response to flooding to a more comprehensive approach focusing on prevention and non-structural measures. It was also more equitable.”

And while the FDRP was not a coordinating body per se, it was a standards setting and cost sharing program, which acted as a coordinating body – at least for the purposes of setting minimum national standards for flood plain mapping and for homogenizing approaches to disaster assistance. The FDRP played an important role in getting the provinces and the federal government largely on the same page regarding flood mapping, flood defence, flood risk reduction, and disaster assistance.

Alas, the program was wound down in the late 1990s.

So, in nutshell, flood management and governance in Canada is plagued by (at least) two major issues.

First, flood is the responsibility of a patchwork quilt of entities that not only have a hard time communicating and coordinating between themselves, but often have a hard time communicating and coordinating within themselves.

Second, the winding down of the FDRP has almost completely put an end to provincial/federal discussions and coordination related to flood management. Much of the only remaining communication that takes place deals with the application for and payment of disaster assistance from Ottawa to the provinces via the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements.

Both of these shortfalls need to be addressed in order for the country to be able to move forward with a well coordinated approach that looks at flood holistically.

To address the first problem, each province is best advised to take what is essentially an enterprise risk management approach to flood, perhaps starting with the establishment of a directorate or centre that would serve as a central hub or one-stop-shop for riverine flood management and oversight (though including urban flooding in such a body would likely not be feasible due to its multifarious nature). At least then, when the federal government, (re)insurance industry or other body needs to approach a given province on the issue of flood, they would know where to start.

Next, the federal government may wish to seriously consider re-establishment of a FDRP to restore flood-related communication and coordination, standard-setting, and cost-sharing with the provinces. While the new National Disaster Mitigation Program (NDMP) could fill gaps left by the now defunct FDRP, it remains to be seen whether the NDMP will play the same roll and have the same reach as the FDRP. If it does, it is welcomed. If not, the federal government may consider forming a singular, flood-focused entity – staffed by flood experts – to aid in the creation of a holistic, risk management-based national flood management program for the country.

Currently, each of the parts do a very good job of managing and governing flood in their respective areas of operation. But the parts currently do not make add up to what’s needed for an effective whole.

It is largely a matter of building the proper institutions to facilitate better communication, coordination and cost-sharing.

Build it and they will come.

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2 Comments » for Flood governance in Canada: Who’s minding the store?
  1. Robert Muir says:

    Glenn you have nailed it. Kudos.

    A holistic system is possible and it can and has been done for other water issues. But it will take tens of millions of dollars to fund the technical studies and strong political will (following a tragedy) to start things off and move toward a strategy.

    In Ontario it took fatalities for the provincial government to embark on Source Protection after the Walkerton tragedy – but the type of silo-free system needed for flood risk management was developed for drinking water source protection. What was created? A new act, new regulations, directors rules for ministries, advanced technical studies with semi-quantitative risk assessment and a whole new realm of vulnerable area mapping for different types of threats, provincially approved risk management plans with mandatory compliance for existing significant threats and prevention of future ones in each local management area (amalgamated CA jurisdictions), mandated incorporation of risk reduction policies into official plans (don’t forget that land-use planning aspect and silo of Ministry of MAH), new municipal risk management official roles, annual implementation reporting of risk management activities, and management of water quantity down to a lot level (e.g., on the whole Oak Ridges Moraine single family lots are regulated for water quantity risks in Source Protection’s “WHPA Q1/Q2” quantity vulnerability zones). So yes it can be done and has been done with cross-ministry coordination, leveraging existing legal instruments for risk reduction, and filing in gaps in vulnerability mapping and management policies.

    Unfortunately, there has been lot of (too much?) focus on rainfall changes and not enough on hydrology and hydraulic changes, or the trade-offs between competing society goals in land development and drainage infrastructure. While Ontario has a great Places to Grow Act, it needs a Places to Flow Act instead. It also needs a balance between environmental and infrastructure goals – e.g., how has Ontario’s spill reduction Procedure F-5-5- made basement flooding worse in Ontario communities? In my neighbourhood, the Municipal Class EA shows we have flooded basements but kept the beaches clean with narrow-focus infrastructure that ignores the law of conservation of poop – it has to go somewhere. This a question of priorities of the provincial government and certainly too-narrow a focus on silo goals within ministries.

    Glenn, I sent the Ontario Minister of Environment and Climate change and the Premier a 10 page letter on the integration topics / challenges like those in the blog post:


    But I recently got back a form letter response doubling down on emissions control as the solution to flooding, so I do not have a lot of faith in the vision the Ontario provincial level.

    Time to open the “Office of the Water Czar” at Queen’s Park and connect some silos with a holistic flood risk management framework.

  2. I know first hand and feel the frustration in trying to navigate the layers and being passed around like a hot potato, 2006 The Uk Gov’t took initiative by way of offering grants to develop options namely products to replace the historical failing sand bagging process and everything that comes with it, hence the Flood Stop Barrier was created, endorsed, deployed and coveted with environmental awards in the UK and several European countries. Knowledge is power, awareness is an important and integral part of knowledge, you can’t implement change without Knowledge and awareness. For the past 6 months I’ve been focused on awareness only to hit more barriers (pun intended) at every turn, very frustrating!! Keep up with your great articles and research, your topics are wide ranging and always seems to focus on the same challenge, need to knock down the barriers, simple the process on many fronts and topics!!

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