Three ways the federal government can protect flood-prone communities. 1 thing you can do.

Whether with cash, data, or the country's largest bullhorn, the federal government could do much more to address the flooding risk faced by many communities, experts say.

By Tyler Olsen | January 10, 2022 |5:30 am

After torrential rains flooded much of Sumas Prairie, the federal government sent in the army to help people stranded in landslides, fill sandbags, and fix dikes.

Its sudden presence was a stark change from the Canadian government’s role before the flood. Indeed, when it comes to flood protections and prevention, the feds are largely absent, leaving the job to the provinces and cities. That, Jason Thistlethwaite and Daniel Henstra say, needs to change.

In an article published last month in Policy Options magazine and republished today in The Current, the two University of Waterloo researchers argue that the feds need to use their considerable power to do things that cities and provinces either cannot do, or are unwilling to do.

Read that article here.

In a subsequent interview, Thistlethwaite outlined three key areas where the federal governments could play a key role. Because at the moment, it does relatively little.

“Unlike many of our industrialized counterparts, our federal government or national level government plays a very minor role in comparison to other jurisdictions similar to Canada,” Thistlethwaite says.

The provinces are generally left to develop their own disaster prevention and response strategies and plans. And while the feds do play some role in that, Thistlethwaite says there is a “misalignment in the appropriate roles and responsibilities for managing risk.”

Thistlethwaite pointed to BC, where municipalities are supposed to take the lead role in managing local disaster risk. Those cities, however, also rely on revenue from development and growth, creating a conflict of interest that can permit building and construction on flood-prone land. There are ways to shift that, but they usually involve reducing the power of local governments. (In BC, the Agricultural Land Reserve plays that role in part by regulating and limiting the ability to develop farmland. For 40 years, the ALR has restricted the scale of residential, commercial, and industrial development on Sumas Prairie, limiting—to some degree—the scale of the damage.)

Thistlethwaite says there are three main areas where the federal government could play a positive role in flood management, if it chose to do so. 1) Using its political power to publicly push for more action on flood mitigation work. 2) Providing information that can be used by citizens, institutions, local levels of governments, and companies to mitigate risk. 3) Opening its pocketbook to pay for mitigation and prevention projects.

We will take these one by one.

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1) Power and prioritization

The feds are limited by the constitution to actually pass laws that govern what municipalities and provincial governments do. But the feds do have the largest megaphone in the country. When their representatives talk, people listen. Using that power to drive conversations and discussions, Thistlethwaite says, is a “soft” approach, but one that can be incredibly important.

That could involve “convening stakeholders, making it a political issue, prioritizing these issues, bringing light and attention across the country to these issues,” he says.

When federal politicians and bureaucrats talk about an issue, people listen and take notice. And that’s vital when the subject is disaster preparedness. There can be a temptation by governments and even individuals to put off preparing for an event that may or may not happen. Having the federal government publicly and consistently prioritize flood protection work could set the tone for the rest of the country.

2) Information, please

A more concrete action would be for the federal government to collect and provide better information about flood risks across Canada.

“It’s very hard to find things like flood maps, or user-friendly maps, that ultimately can be used to empower local constituencies to manage their own risk,” Thistlethwaite says. While local governments do generally have a decent idea of the location of risks, having actual data available to allow average people to learn about their flood risk can increase local ability to get mitigation work done before a flood hits.

“The federal government could play a role by having, as we suggest in the article, a flood risk portal: a place where people could go to find out their risk.”

The information on such a portal could also provide neutral information to guide development decisions. Although many federal government websites are not particularly user-friendly, Thistlethwaite says that even if the data collected was relatively unprocessed, that information could then be used by academics, insurance companies, or others to create something more useful for the average citizen.

“Information can act as regulation by stealth, because it empowers local stakeholders to use that information to manage risk.”

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3) Cash

The federal government collects the bulk of tax dollars in Canada, but only pays for a relatively small portion of many infrastructure projects, including flood mitigation works. The feds could decide to spend more money on protecting flood-risk communities.

A standard formulation for such projects sees a municipality, a province, and the federal government each paying a third of the cost. Changing that formula when it comes to flood projects, Thistlethwaite says, could dramatically speed up necessary work to improve dikes and flood protection systems.

“There’s a weird tradition in Canada where it’s just assumed that we should be funding programs one-third, one-third, one-third,” Thistlethwaite says. “That doesn’t reflect at all the resources available to those levels of governance.”

Local governments, for instance, collect less than 10% of all tax dollars in Canada. The feds collect more than half. But on many flood projects, they are equal partners. That’s not how it works in many countries. In the United States, he notes, the federal government provides at least 75% of the cash needed for most flood protection programs—and often a much higher share.

The government could also make funds incumbent on cities or provinces taking certain actions, such as restricting development on flood-prone areas.

“Resources are particularly powerful in Canada’s federation, if they are used strategically,” Thistlethwaite says.

But politicians aren’t the only ones who need to speak up. The flooding and landslides may end up being Canada’s most-expensive natural disaster ever, Thistlethwaite says. But even with that legacy, the public—both in those areas like the Fraser Valley most affected, and those across the country—will still need to raise their voice to ensure politicians act to prevent a future flood.

“Flooding is Canada’s most costly and common hazard,” he says. “Ultimately, what we need are the people who are affected, but also their allies, to speak up much more broadly across the country.”

A more vocal political constituency calling for better flood protections is likely needed to actually get action from governments. There is likely a six- to 12-month window to draw the attention of politicians and government decision makers, he says.

“It’s a crucial… window to hold their feet to the fire and actually get some accountability,” he says. “I would encourage anyone affected by the floods up there to pick up the phone and start bothering your elected officials.”

Subscribe to our daily newsletter to get every story we publish, and plenty other local information, in your email inbox each morning. Here’s what the newsletter looks like.

Get FV Current in your inbox.

Plug in to the news that matters in Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Mission, and the rest of the Fraser Valley.

By filling out the form above, you consent to receive emails from Fraser Valley Current. You can unsubscribe at any time. View our privacy policy here.

Having trouble with the form? Contact us at contact@fvcurrent.com.

Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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