Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Put limits on flood plain construction

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CALGARY -- It's time legislators across Canada showed some courage and passed meaningful legislation limiting development on flood plains.

It's not like the fact large portions of Canada floods is news to anyone. A map of flood-prone areas prepared by the CBC using data from the Canadian Disaster Database shows just how extensive the flood-prone areas are.

It shows all of B.C., large portions of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, much of the area surrounding Winnipeg, all of Quebec, as well as New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI.

Yep. Sad to say, but much of our country is vulnerable to a flooding "event," as the experts like to call it, sooner or later. Outside of the identified high-risk areas, there are numerous examples of recent floods, including the two in the past eight years that have walloped Calgary and surrounding communities.

That certainly goes a long to explain why you can't get residential overland-flooding insurance anywhere in Canada.

As I said, none of this is new in recorded history. The Fraser River flood of 1894 was the largest flood of that river on record, and then it got hit by the second largest in 1948. Calgary and area got hammered hard in 1929, several times since and then once again in June of this year. Manitoba's Red River spills its banks with great regularity, with a horrific flood in 1950 and a substantial overflow in 1997, despite mitigation efforts. Also in Manitoba, the Assiniboine flooded in 2011, affecting 225 square kilometres around Portage la Prairie.

And who can forget the heartbreaking Saguenay flood of 1996, when 28 centimetres of rain fell on the region in a few hours? In the East, the Saint John River overflowed in 2008, surpassing a similar event in 1973.

I don't want to get drawn into a debate over whether man-made climate change is behind the increasingly extreme weather our country is experiencing, but it is clear most climatologists think we'll see more nasty events in the coming years. If we don't change the way we build and locate businesses and homes, then we're a bunch of idiots.

And yet, in many portions of the country, provinces and municipalities allow building permits in areas that are almost certainly going to experience flooding -- if not next year, then certainly within our lifetimes.

Why is that? Well, part of the motivation is Canadians -- like many others around the world -- consider waterside property to be so attractive it's worth a premium. Some of the nicest homes in any city are located right on the edge of waterways. And, when the weather is stable, they are truly great places to be.

But it's not a good long-term plan. As Calgarians learned two weeks ago, a multimillion-dollar mansion isn't nearly as impressive as it once was when it's sitting under two metres of water.

And yet, people often don't take the long view. I have heard from homeowners who lost their properties in Calgary's recent flood who said they didn't know, and weren't told, their beautiful property was in an area considered at high risk. You might well wonder how the heck they couldn't figure that out, but people shopping for homes tend to worry more about the marble countertops than the water table.

So, in the absence of common sense, governments need to bring some reason to the discussion. It's in all our interests to restrict building, because inevitably those affected by the flooding look for massive government bailouts when the basement fills up.

No jurisdiction in North America appears to have this problem solved, but there are some interesting initiatives in the U.S., which has certainly felt its share of the pain. The National Flood Insurance Program will compensate those hurt by flooding, but it comes with a big requirement. Any community that wishes to participate in the NFIP must agree to take on the responsibility of flood-plain management -- including the enforcement of building restrictions.

That tactic alone is not enough to address the growing toll of flooding in our country, but it would be a hefty start. Homes destroyed in High River and similar areas should simply not be rebuilt in the same location. And locating new subdivisions in flood plains is nothing less than a crime.

Beyond the obvious compassion for victims, taxpayers have a highly vested interest in this issue. Every time flooding devastates an area, we are all asked to contribute to the rebuilding. That's billions of dollars diverted from other urgent public spending.

When will our country learn to listen to nature's cruel message? When we're drowning in debt?

Doug Firby is editor-in-chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media.

--Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 A17

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