Canadian Environmentalists Call on All Parties to Clean Up the Great Lakes
Ontario environmental organizations today handed all parties their vision of the three key elements that should be included in Ontario's Great Lakes Protection Act (GLPA).
The Liberals promised a Great Lakes Protection Act in the Throne Speech and both opposition parties pledged to protect water quality in their platforms. First reading of the new act is expected this spring.
The groups are urging that the Great Lakes Protection Act:
- engage citizens and support vibrant waterfront communities and economies
- protect and restore Great Lakes' biodiversity
- improve water quality and quantity
The groups agreed that the Great Lakes Protection Act needs to connect people with their lakes by improving the health of natural areas, shorelines and beaches, reducing sources of pollution from air and land, attacking destructive invasive species, and by using Ontario’s high tech innovations, regulations and natural services (like wetlands) to reduce the impacts of cities on water quality and quantity.
“The Great Lakes provide drinking water to four out of five Ontarians,” says Derek Stack, executive director at Great Lakes United. “It’s time to connect—in law—the basic necessity of clean water with how we treat our Lakes’ ecosystem. It’s time to clean up our act.”
On some Great Lakes people have begun swimming at beaches again after years of fear of contaminated water. "These places, like Blue Flag beaches on Toronto’s waterfront, serve as reminders that local investments in sewage treatment facilities can improve people’s quality of life," says Claire Malcolmson, water programs manager at Environmental Defence. "We want this experience to spread to other communities in the Great Lakes basin."
“If the Great Lakes Protection Act helps municipal governments pay for needed water and sewer infrastructure investments, people can enjoy improvements to their waterfronts and water quality quite quickly,” says Anastasia Lintner, staff lawyer at Ecojustice.
“Despite their values, Ontario’s wetlands continue to be lost at an alarming rate,” says Mark Gloutney, director of Regional Operations—Eastern Region Ducks Unlimited Canada. “The protection of wetlands in the Great Lakes Basin and coast is critical to maintaining the ecological integrity and biodiversity of the Great Lakes.”
"Wetlands are needed by 80 percent of Great Lakes fish at some point in their life cycle for spawning and or nursery habitat. But 70 percent of Great Lakes coastal wetlands have been lost due to development and or pollution. We need to put in place new policies to protect what wetlands we have left,” says Mary Muter, chair, Great Lakes Section, Sierra Club Ontario.
Stronger action on the Great Lakes has been expected for some time. Evidence has been mounting that the Great Lakes are reaching a tipping point, and the province is aware of this. In 2009, the province released a discussion paper on the Great Lakes and toured the province seeking input from stakeholders.
"Our hope for the Great Lakes Protection Act is that it will better align the work of various Ministries, municipalities, stewards and agencies that work on the Great Lakes. Many different decisions are made every day that affect the health of the Great Lakes and we hope this new Act helps to better allocate public resources for the benefit of the Great Lakes,” said Theresa McClenaghan, executive director and Counsel to Canadian Environmental Law Association.
The environmentalists' Statement of Expectations and legislative drafting notes were written by Canadian Environmental Law Association, Ducks Unlimited Canada, Ecojustice, Environmental Defence, Great Lakes United and the Sierra Club Ontario Chapter, with input from Conservation Ontario and World Wildlife Fund. Already the documents have the support of 16 other groups.
Environmental Defence launched an online petition last week to demonstrate public support for the ideas outlined in the Statement of Expectations for the Great Lakes Protection Act. The petition can be found by clicking here.
The Statement of Expectations on the Great Lakes Protection Act and legislative drafting notes can be downloaded by clicking here.
For more information, click here.
The Canadian Environmental Law Association works to protect human health and our environment by seeking justice for those harmed by pollution and by working to change policies to prevent such problems in the first place.
Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) is the leader in wetland conservation. A registered charity, DUCpartners with government, industry, other nonprofit organizations and landowners to conserve wetlands that are critical to waterfowl, wildlife and the environment.
Ecojustice is the country’s leading charitable organization dedicated to using the law to defend Canadians’ right to a healthy environment.
Environmental Defence is Canada's most effective environmental action organization. We challenge, and inspire change in government, business and people to ensure a greener, healthier and prosperous life for all.
Great Lakes United is a cross-border coalition of groups working to protect and restore the Great Lakes and St Lawrence River ecosystem.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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