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Toronto Mayor John Tory speaks at a press conference on March 3 2016. Federal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi and Ontario Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli joined Toronto Mayor John Tory in the Port Lands for an announcement on Sept. 14, 2016 regarding the “renaturalization” of the Don River’s mouth.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

How do you move a river? Shift thousands of tons of earth, silt and semi-toxic sludge. Open up a kilometre of new waterway lined with green space where it can safely spill over when the skies open up.

But first you have to get three sets of politicians on the same page, and thinking about the long term.

That's what happened Wednesday, as the federal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi and Ontario Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli joined Toronto Mayor John Tory in the Port Lands for an announcement.

RELATED: Shored up: How Toronto's waterfront redevelopment is going right

The project? Filling in part of the lake at a place called Essroc Quay. Few Torontonians have heard of it, or have even been to the Port Lands, a nearly empty expanse of more than 350 hectares on the doorstep of downtown.

Yet this was a real start toward an enormous project: the "renaturalization" of the Don River's mouth, which will provide necessary flood protection for a wide swath of land and a huge economic and cultural payoff.

The stakes are high. This will be one of the most important infrastructure projects in Toronto's history. But it will be pricey – costing an estimated $1-billion – and slow, with a timeline measured in decades. And unsexy: Moving dirt doesn't make for good photo ops.

Wednesday's modest announcement of $65-million in funds, half from the federal government and the rest split between city and province, is a down payment on that much larger vision.

The vision, which is under the oversight of the agency Waterfront Toronto, is to make the Port Lands part of the city, a home to new public space, thousands of jobs and tens of thousands of residents. All that underused land is, in a fast-growing city, hidden gold. And Waterfront has already shown its ability to build fine new urbanism.

A problem: Most of it lies within the flood plain of the river. The Don has always been prone to flooding, and especially so since it was reshaped in the 19th and 20th centuries. (Remember 2013's snake on a GO Train?)

To make the Port Lands an extension of downtown, planners need to make sure the area won't drown. In an era when climate change is making 100-year floods come increasingly often, this is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Waterfront Toronto ran an international design competition, and the winning scheme, led by landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, ably deals with problems of hydrology, landscape and urbanism. But politics is another matter.

"This is an extremely difficult project, both technically and politically," says Gabriel Eidelman, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto's school of public policy and governance. "This is not the last of the announcements we're going to see over the years to come."

Dr. Eidelman has studied the planning and governance of Toronto's waterfront, and it is largely a history of big dreams gone wrong, schemes scuttled by competing governments and agencies. With that lens, he can't help but see Wednesday's announcement with a grain of skepticism. All the smiles and handshakes among the politicians on Wednesday mean good news for now – but what happens with a change in government? Will a Premier Patrick Brown see the benefit in writing big cheques to move dirt in downtown Toronto?

"Projects can go back to the drawing board. That's always a danger," Dr. Eidelman says.

Over the next few years, all three levels of government could get behind the Don Mouth project with real money, and give Waterfront Toronto – which is dependent on the discretion of three governments for its funding – a new mandate and funds for other projects as well. Or they might not. On Wednesday, the future looked sunny. But what happens when it rains?

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