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MARTIN PATRIQUIN: Rebuilding on flood plains is folly

Premier François Legault looks towards the encroaching Rivière des Prairies beside a wall of sand constructed by Canadian military in the Ile Bigras area of Laval near Montreal Sunday, April 21, 2019.
Premier François Legault looks towards the encroaching Rivière des Prairies beside a wall of sand constructed by Canadian military in the Ile Bigras area of Laval near Montreal Sunday, April 21, 2019.

It has been impossible to watch the current display of flooded houses, waterlogged roads and umpteen sandbag brigades without a sense of déjà vu dread. It was only two years ago that we saw a similar scene unfold in Montreal and its environs, with a very similar narrative running through the ensuing coverage: we are strong, and we will weather this tragedy as neighbours. And we will rebuild.

And yet we really, really shouldn’t. Rebuilding anything in those areas visited by floods in the past week is tantamount to wilful ignorance of the environmental forces that bring such calamity in the first place. For the sake of a few thousand waterfront properties, we repeatedly risk lives and spend public treasure on the real estate equivalent of a terrible bet, one made even worse in this era of climate change. It’s harsh medicine, but a large part of the riverside real estate around Montreal needs to be returned to nature, to act as nature intended: as a bulwark against floods.

There is a certain arrogance in building a house near a river, then expecting the government to help out when that river overflows. Yet that is exactly what thousands of home owners in and around Montreal are in the midst of doing. The government help comes first with police and firefighters, then the army and finally civil servants who inspect claims and dole out cheques.

In business, undertaking reckless behaviour knowing that others bear the risk is called moral hazard. In Rigaud, one of several Montreal-area burghs chronically afflicted by flooding, where risk has been heavily mitigated by government help, it’s practically become a way of life.

To be fair, certain provincial governments have been morally hazardous themselves. In 2011, three months after flooding in the Richelieu Valley, Liberal Premier Jean Charest set aside a prohibition on the rebuilding of homes in 20-year flood plains, so named because there is a 1-in-20 chance of flooding each year, and allowed the owners of 2,500 houses that should have been levelled to rebuild.

In doing so, Charest’s government went against its own 2005 decree. Yet Charest had bigger worries: a looming election. He could scarcely afford to fall out of favour in those flood-stricken areas, located as they were in key battleground ridings.

For the provincial government, opening up flood zones to construction is too easy: under Canada’s disaster relief program, the province is assured the federal government will pay the lion’s share when flooding strikes.

Towering above short-sighted political considerations is stark environmental reality. Montreal sits at the confluence of two raging rivers, the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa. With climate change, the flow of these waters is less predictable. Precipitation levels are set to increase by as much as 14 per cent in southern Quebec by 2050, according to a 2017 government report. And it will tend to fall in more intensive, flood-provoking bursts.

Proper flood zones replete with vegetation and marshlands will become all the more crucial. And yet, for the sake of nice views and the tax revenue they bring to municipal coffers, they are more often than not covered in concrete, laden with houses or turned into magisterial manicured lawns.

To his great credit, Premier François Legault recently acknowledged the folly of this status quo. In an all-too-familiar scene this week, Legault did as two of his immediate predecessors have done: trudge through a flood-stricken area doling out promises of speedy compensation for homeowners.

This time, though, Legault evoked an end to such payouts, as well as the potential abandonment of entire neighbourhoods. “We don’t want to waste taxpayer money and force people to relive this kind of drama every two or three years,” he said. Residents, Legault said, could be offered a one-time payment for their troubles. May they take it and run to higher ground.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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