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Les Stanfield is an aquatic ecologist who studies the factors that influence watershed ecohealth, and the principal owner of Ecohealth Solutions.

As winter turns to spring, bringing rainshowers in its wake, flooding has returned to Canada as well, devastating communities across the country. Thousands in Manitoba, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec have been forced to evacuate their homes as governments declare states of emergency and water levels continue to rise.

Without question, climate change is a serious factor in all this. But it is not the only one. And believing that it is the lone issue at play means that we risk missing a major part of the story – and the solution.

Story continues below advertisement

About 70 per cent to 80 per cent of a watershed’s area is drained by thousands of very small waterbodies, each one draining small areas. These small waterbodies – wetlands, swales, springs – are largely unmapped and unregulated. Many flow only in spring, and these capillaries of the land provide the true capacity of the watershed to store and pass water to rivers. The frequency and magnitude of flows in the receiving rivers are a direct reflection of the rate and timing of flows from these waterbodies.

In the 1960s, we built dams to capture these flows and also established watershed-based authorities to manage flood risk to populated areas. This strategy provided an effective Band-Aid, but it wasn’t able to capture the evolution of how we live: Expanded upstream urbanization and agricultural intensification almost everywhere have increased the rate and volume of water entering rivers. Many rivers have now surpassed their capacity to process these flows.

This has been exacerbated by economic pressures forcing farmers to increase the yields from limited acreage. That has caused them to drain or bury areas that have historically been too wet to till. Urbanization also hardens and covers the land, making it harder for water to drain through it. The flood control plans that have largely worked for the past 30 years are no longer working because that flood forecasting doesn’t consider the impact of these largely undocumented actions by farmers and developers.

The root of Canada’s flooding issue is that there is no comprehensive strategy to manage these small waterbodies, which we’ve been altering for a long time. Generally, landowners can alter the waterbodies with impunity, and while there are a few programs that use private funds to reward landowners for altering them responsibly, there are few disincentives for land uses that increase flood risk downstream. It’s a classic case of the tragedy of the commons: When the gains are obtained by few and the costs are shared by many, people will generally opt for the short-term profit.

Some municipalities across the country have adopted policies or levies to begin to address this issue. In the Toronto and Ottawa regions, headwater policies are now in place to manage how urban development affects these systems. Right now, if flow patterns on lands being developed are already damaged, developers only need to replicate those damaged states of flows when their construction work is finished, without consideration of the flood risk downstream. In the Waterloo region, a stormwater levy program has been instituted that reflects a property’s contribution to stormwater, meaning that landowners pay for their contribution to stormwater; properties with penetrable soils or pavements or with means to store water would pay a lower levy. But the effectiveness of both these programs is limited because the policies are only applied to urban lands; farming and aggregates, for example, are not considered, so their ultimate impact on watershed flood control is diminished.

What we need to tackle the flooding problem is a comprehensive user-pay program that would assess the property owner’s contribution to flood protection within their watershed. A property with wetlands and other water storage areas is rewarded with lower levies; those properties that increase risk pay more. This user-pay system could eventually assess even more valued features, including rare species habitat protection and wildlife corridors, to create an incentive toward ecohealth.

The Trudeau government promised Canadians both a sustainable agricultural and an integrated climate-change strategy, but to date, neither has emerged in ways that include headwater waterbodies as important components that need attention. This is the metric by which voters can really tell which political party really cares about this growing, serious and national issue, rather than just ducking behind the excuse that climate change is causing all our problems. Without a comprehensive strategy to deal with these waterbodies, the problems will only get worse. The few will gain – and the many will pay.

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