Is it time for a ‘planned retreat’ from building near flood plains?

Many municipalities have not updated flood maps created in the 1970s in fear that revisions could expose them to liability for damages

Development near flood-prone zones
Photo by The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck

Two days after an “atmospheric river” dumped an almost Biblical quantity of water on B.C.’s lower mainland last November, landscape architect Kees Lokman, director of the University of British Columbia’s Coastal Adaptation Lab, mulled over the complicated and uncomfortable lessons that floods leave in their muddy aftermath.

The areas that were inundated included the low-lying regions in the southern part of B.C., where the mighty Fraser River flows south from the Rocky Mountains and then meanders west through places like Abbotsford, a city of 150,000 people located 70 kilometres east of Vancouver, which saw farms and neighbourhoods submerged by the flood.

Through his academic and professional work, Lokman has focused on the places where land and water meet, and how these zones have emerged as a critical front line in the fight against climate change. Two years ago, he published an academic paper that explores approaches to visualizing coastal risks in the Fraser River delta, and how these might be pressed into service to support policy-makers as they grapple with increased flooding caused by rising sea levels, extreme weather, deforestation and over-paving in urbanized watersheds.

The topic invariably spills over into another deeply complex issue: what to do about development in or near flood-prone zones. “It’s kind of hard to understand where to start,” Lokman concedes. “The flood is showing that climate change doesn’t know boundaries.”

Yet boundaries – property lines, municipal borders and the actuarial tables that map the bracing new limits of home insurance in flood-prone areas – represent some of the most stubborn hurdles in the path of a sustainable response to global warming. Says Lokman, “Maybe this is the type of crisis that will put this issue more front and centre.”

Few would dispute that flood-related damage has become the most visible symptom of climate change in urbanized regions. “Residential basement flooding is the number one cost of climate change in Canada,” says Blair Feltmate, director of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo. The average claim now runs to $43,000.

According to data gathered by Feltmate, property and casualty claims in Canada averaged $250 to $450 million annually between 1983 and 2008, but those figures have shot up in the years since then to an average annual figure of $1.8 billion. A forthcoming study by the Intact Centre of five flood-prone Canadian cities found that homes lost value and took longer to sell in the wake of flood events. Swiss Re, the international insurance giant, recently estimated that property insurance premiums will triple, to US$4.3 trillion, between 2020 and 2040 globally, partly because of climate risk.

Flooding, of course, isn’t just a homeowner problem. Catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the flash floods in the U.S. northeast last year exposed the extreme vulnerability of low-income, racialized and marginalized communities that had been shunted to the lowest-lying areas of New Orleans or inexpensive basement apartments in NYC. Lokman, whose visualization study sought to offer solutions for Pacific Island states, adds that in B.C., many Indigenous communities are located on reserves near vulnerable coastal areas.

While Canadian flood disasters have been accelerating in recent years – think of Calgary in 2013, Toronto in 2018, Quebec in 2019 and Nova Scotia in 2021 – there’s little evidence to indicate that governments have recognized the opportunity to leverage these crises to make real changes. In the U.S., the Army Corps of Engineers repaired the levees around New Orleans in the years since Katrina at a cost of US$14 billion. They held through last summer’s major hurricane, although they are already beginning to sink, Scientific American reported. More generally, the instinct to rebuild, for example along barrier islands that are routinely devastated by extreme weather, suggests the persistence of societal denial about the impact of climate change on these geographies.

Relocation, relocation, relocation

In previous eras and in other places, floods did spur new ways of thinking about water, conservation and human settlements. The Netherlands’ Room for the River program, implemented in the wake of extreme flooding along the Rhine in the early 1990s, is now recognized internationally for its pragmatic approach to adapting land-use practices to new climate realities. The program ensures that there’s enough clear, undeveloped space around rivers to accommodate floods that overtop the banks.

More recently, the City of Christchurch, in New Zealand, imposed so-called red zone designations on a series of residential neighbourhoods along the Avon River that were submerged during the floods triggered by the devastating 2011 earthquake. About 5,500 homes and properties in these areas were expropriated, and the buildings demolished. Today these lands are being allowed to re-naturalize with recreational uses such as trails, thereby forming a spacious green buffer between the river and the city.

There’s a compelling and forward-looking example in Canada, too: in Ontario, after Hurricane Hazel in 1954 caused $100 million in property damage and killed 81 people, the provincial government adopted farsighted flood-plain management policies that restrict development in river basins such as the Don and the Humber in Greater Toronto.

The flood is showing that climate change doesn’t know boundaries.

—Kees Lokman, UBC’s Coastal Adaptation Lab

Yet, as Lokman points out, only Ontario and Quebec today employ watershed management land-use policies. In B.C., the provincial government several years ago downloaded responsibility for watersheds to municipalities, a nonsensical move that ignores the reality that floods don’t care about jurisdiction or the fact that some builder plunked down millions for a piece of picturesque pasture land with hopes of building a subdivision. Municipalities, Feltmate adds, are conflicted about restricting development. “We want the property tax revenue base that’s going to be derived from [development] to fund other activities in our communities.”

In the U.S. last year, a group of experts working with support from a New York City foundation created an interactive website with up-to-date flood-risk mapping across the country. According to The New York Times, the extent is far greater than the flood zones charted by federal emergency management authorities. In Canada, the information gap is even more dire. Few municipalities have updated flood maps that were created in the 1970s. The reason? If the maps are revised and show flood risk in new areas, municipalities are potentially liable for damages and may not be eligible for federal disaster-relief funding. Says Feltmate, “The incentives are backwards.”

In provinces with watershed land-use management policies, real estate developers generally can’t build in flood plains. But as disasters in Calgary and now B.C. have shown, municipalities have over many years permitted growth in areas that are highly susceptible.

Localized data on flood risk, Feltmate says, is not centrally gathered and made available by organizations like the Canadian Real Estate Association. In fact, as a CBC Marketplace investigation recently found, there are no disclosure rules that would allow home buyers to find out if they are bidding on a property in a flood-prone area.

Insurance companies draw the line

Almost by default, the regulation of land use in flood-prone communities is occurring indirectly, in the form of underwriter decisions to refuse property insurance to individual homeowners. According to geographer Andrea Minano, research manager for the University of Waterloo’s Climate Risk Research Group, between 7 and 10% of Canadian homes – about one million – have become very difficult to insure, with flood-protection coverage offered by only a handful of re-insurers. Feltmate says 600,000 to 800,000 homes have been deemed uninsurable.

The property insurance industry has been pushing for tougher regulations. Two years ago, the Insurance Bureau of Canada’s (IBC) national working group on the financial risk of flooding put out a call for governments to adopt some core principles, including increased risk awareness, improved risk identification with “public-facing maps” and aggressive risk mitigation. The group also says insurers need to price flood risk properly and expand the take-up of flood insurance.

Minano, who has worked with both the IBC and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, is in the midst of a project to canvass municipalities about sharing more flood data with property insurers as a means of ensuring that underwriters are making decisions based on the most recent information about municipal risk-mitigation programs, such as incentives to install back-flow valves in basement drains or upgrade storm-water infrastructure. “I do see a lot of potential,” she says, citing a similar program in Australia that led to a reduction in premiums and helped insurers price risk more accurately.

Feltmate adds that in some areas, small preventative investments – for instance, upgrading a sump pump or installing a backup power source to ensure it keeps working during outages – can go a long way. “We do not have to be the victims of circumstance,” he says, citing studies showing that for every dollar spent on such adaptation moves, there’s an estimated $3 to $8 in savings associated with prevented damage. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

If revised maps show flood risk in new areas, municipalities are potentially liable for damages and may not be eligible for federal relief.

Yet the extraordinary scale of flood events, plus their increasing frequency, suggests these kinds of proactive measures can go only so far. As has been the case elsewhere, the B.C. disaster brutally revealed the vulnerability of major infrastructure, such as highways, wells and water treatment plants that were inundated and rendered unusable in the wake of the storm.

Consequently, the decisions about societal response have become increasingly fraught and intractable. Do governments spend billions on engineered solutions – such as higher dikes and seawalls, or beach reconstruction – knowing that this kind of infrastructure can either fail, become obsolete or produce negative environmental side effects, such as the disappearance of coastal habitats (hard defences redirect, instead of absorb, wave energy)?

The alternative is “planned retreat” – a rolling back of urbanized or settled zones away from rising seas or widening flood plains, as happened after Hurricane Hazel and the New Zealand earthquake, and perhaps now should be an option in places like the Fraser River delta.

It’s worth noting that millions of people in the regions that make up the Global South are being displaced in highly unplanned and deadly ways by climate change. Recent estimates from the UN and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre put the figure at 480 million worldwide over the past two decades, and those numbers could double by 2050. In those regions, governments haven’t had the luxury of debating the finer points of land-use policy. “Around the world, governments and communities have retreated, are in the process of doing so, or are planning for a future when retreat may be inevitable,” according to a Portland State University study on climate change and planned retreat published this year by Routledge.

“It’s a really difficult conversation,” Lokman says. “We have to radically change the way we think about this.”

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