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How basement flood risk could rise with pandemic-induced municipal funding crunch


June 10, 2020   by Greg Meckbach


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The economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic could have an impact on public works projects aimed at reducing basement flooding, the head of an extreme weather risk think tank suggests.

“When you are talking about how we are going to maintain funding to keep the subways running and the streetcars running and all of the things you absolutely need for the functionality of a city, anything that might be put into the discretionary pile for the time being – even though it is a good thing to do with a positive return on investment – that might have to be set to the side,” said Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, a University of Waterloo research centre that gets funding from Canada’s largest property and casualty insurer.

So infrastructure programs to mitigate flood risk will not be immune from spending cuts brought on by pandemic, Feltmate said Tuesday in an interview. Feltmate has not been told of any specific project related to basement flood protection that is being delayed due to municipal financial problems related to COVID.

But say for example a 50-year-old neighbourhood needs upgrades to reduce basement flood risk. There is a risk that some proposed upgrades could be delayed because of shortfalls in municipal revenues, Feltmate said, though he is not speculating that any particular city or program might be affected.

The average basement flood in Canada costs more than $40,000 in both insured and uninsured costs, Feltmate said Tuesday.

Examples of municipal flood mitigation projects include: increasing the size of sewers; separating the sewer systems if the same system currently handles both sanitary wastewater and storm water; and building ponds and berms, among other things, the Intact Centre noted in Weathering The Storm: Developing A Canadian Standard For Flood-Resilient Existing Communities, a paper released in 2019.

Municipalities across Ontario are laying off thousands of staff and contemplating deep service cuts if they cannot secure funding from both levels of government, the Canadian Press recently reported, quoting Cam Guthrie, chairman of the Large Urban Mayors’ Caucus of Ontario and mayor of Guelph. The financial pressure related to COVID-19 is costing the City of Mississauga alone $20 million a month, CP reported, quoting Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie.

“In the case of unscheduled retrofits designed to limit the flood risk associated with long standing infrastructure, revenue shortfalls due to COVID-19 will likely put all but critical projects on hold,” Feltmate told Canadian Underwriter Tuesday.

“It’s not to suggest that those in positions of power would not recognize the need for following through on upgrades but the practical reality is, if they were cash strapped before COVID-19, they are more cash strapped afterwards.”

The cost of building infrastructure in new neighbourhoods, to properly mitigate flood risk, is about the same the cost to build “improperly,” Feltmate said.

The Intact Centre’s research is intended to help homeowners, communities and businesses reduce risks associated with climate change and extreme weather events.

The City of Toronto has spent billions since 2006 on its basement flood protection program, which includes new storm sewer tunnels, water storage facilities, inlet control devices and storage facilities. The aim is to have a storm drain system that can handle a one-in-100 year event, compared to a one-in-five year event. Toronto’s basement flood protection program was initially based on engineering studies in 31 areas that experienced significant flooding during extreme storms in May 2000 and August 2005, the latter of which caused the Finch Avenue bridge over Black Creek to collapse. Toronto’s basement flood protection program was expanded city wide in 2013, after an hour-long rain storm in July of that year caused more than $1 billion in insured losses, mostly sewer backup.

As a result of the pandemic, the City of Toronto is facing at least $1.5 billion in cost pressures because of the pandemic, CP reported, quoting Mayor John Tory, who laid out a scenario that would see the city cut services across the board and lay off more than 19,500 staff if no aid was provided by higher levels of government. The city would also cut transit services by $575 million and lay off 500 police officers.

Feature image via iStock.com/architetta