Floodplain Management is a Watershed Moment: On Burlington

Written by Cory Harris, Water Resources Engineer for Conservation Halton & Karlee May, Digital Media Coordinator

Burlington Flood

Photo Credit: Michelle Caissie


Almost twenty centimetres of rain, or nearly two months’ worth, descended upon the City of Burlington on August 4th, 2014. Residents are still bailing out their flooded homes using buckets, shop vacs, and snow shovels to remove mud from their basements. At the apex of the flash flood, some major highways and roadways were closed, vehicles were submerged, and some residents even made use of their canoes. It was expected that Guelph line north of Dundas would take more than a week to open as most of the shoulders of the road had been eroded away. The overwhelmed stormwater systems, sewage infrastructure, creeks and streams, were unable to contain the unrelenting flow of water. Residents face thousands of dollars in property damages, besides the emotional impact of the loss of personal belongings, like precious family pictures and now destroyed furniture.

When Calgary flooded last summer, I felt deeply impacted as a Water Resources Engineer working in the field of development review and floodplain management for the past 15 years. Seeing the devastation that the flooding has caused and particularly the heartache experienced by many Albertans who lost their homes and most of their possessions in the flooding, has been at times overwhelming. A relative of mine in Calgary lost everything but some clothes and a few personal belongings. Furthermore, the flooding that occurred in Toronto last summer (remember the flooded Ferrari and the stranded GO Train?) was listed as Ontario’s most costly natural disaster by the Insurance Bureau of Canada which said that property damage caused by the storm that swamped the GTA on July 8 was more than $850 million. Now Burlington, Ontario, a city close to home, has also flooded a few weeks ago.


Last year, in the midst of the devastation, the emergency response and recovery efforts, the Province of Alberta showed leadership when they enacted  restrictions on future development in floodways. This may seem like a knee jerk reaction when in fact it is a positive direction for land use planning that will not only have benefits for Albertans, but for all Canadian taxpayers.


Floods and other natural disasters are very expensive. The disaster relief and recovery efforts for the Alberta floods were expected to cost several billion dollars.


In the event of a large-scale natural disaster, the Government of Canada provides financial assistance to provincial and territorial governments through the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements (DFAA), administered by Public Safety Canada.  Since the inception of the program in 1970, the Government of Canada has paid out more than $3.4 billion in post-disaster assistance to help provinces and territories with the costs of response and of returning infrastructure and personal property to pre-disaster condition.  Examples of recent payments include those for the 2005 Alberta floods, the 2003 British Columbia wildfires,  the 2006 flood in Newfoundland and the 2013 floods in Alberta.


Reducing impacts of flooding and other natural hazards, to prevent loss of life and to minimize property damage has been one of the primary objectives  of Conservation Authorities for the past 60 years and is based on three components: prevention, protection, and emergency response.


Emergency response and disaster recovery is the most costly of the approaches to floodplain management as it is a reactive response. Conservation Authorities predict flooding and issue warnings to local communities using flood forecasting to assist in emergency response efforts.


Protection of people and property through the construction of dams, channels, berms, etc, albeit expensive, protects existing development within floodplains. In Ontario, Conservation Authorities and the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) have constructed over 900 dams, dykes, channels and erosion control structures along our rivers and shorelines (which are currently valued at approximately $2.7 billion in today’s dollars). Together they protect more than 46,000 homes and prevent an average of well over $100 million a year in damages.


The highest return on investment in floodplain management is prevention—prevention of property damage and loss of human life. Its effectiveness lies in its simplicity–flood damages are minimized and loss of life is avoided when development is prohibited in floodplains. This saves taxpayers billions of dollars and prevents homeowners from experiencing the monetary, and, emotional costs of damage, or loss, of their homes. Tax payers should not have to pay for the consequences of poor planning.

Corporate Drive

Photo Credit: Michelle Caissie


After Hurricane Hazel in 1954, Conservation Authorities were tasked with ensuring people and property aren’t lost in a flood. Conservation Halton, as well as the other thirty-five conservation authorities in Ontario are mandated by the provincial government to regulate planning and development within flood plains and other natural hazard areas, even if that means prohibiting development in an unsafe area. Our job is to protect people, property, and the natural features of our watershed. Coincidentally, protecting nature protects us.


We have developed floodplain models to show where flooding would occur within our watershed if we were to experience the Hurricane Hazel event. This information guides what areas are regulated and identify where development is prohibited or restricted. We work with our municipal partners to ensure development is directed to safe areas and we encourage that rivers and their flood plains are brought into public ownership wherever possible. Katie Jane Harris, Environmental Planner for Conservation Halton said during a recent survey “if we do our jobs right, you won’t realize we even exist”. The best work completed by Conservation Halton goes largely unnoticed because we have protected the lands along rivers and streams so that natural flooding can occur without impacting adjacent development.


When it comes to floodplain management, an ounce of prevention and protection is worth more than money. Good stewardship natural resources and the effective implementation of science-based development regulations means that the community develops in a safe and sustainable manner for future generations.


If you have pictures or video, we are still welcoming them to floodadmin@hrca.on.ca.

For more about Natural Hazards at Conservation Halton, please continue to our website.



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