Tempers were rising as fast as the Grand River, as West Montrose residents sought answers in the wake of last week’s flooding.
The village was the hardest hit area in Woolwich, where rising rivers and creeks flooded parts of Elmira, St. Jacobs, Breslau, Conestogo and Floradale. Several homes along the river suffered significant flooding. The campground, not unfamiliar with the river spilling over its banks, saw water on a much larger scale than usual.
Residents had plenty of questions for township officials and representatives of the Grand River Conservation Authority on hand in Woolwich council chambers Tuesday night.
The GRCA’s Dwight Boyd said the agency was caught off guard by the amount of rain that fell on the northern part of the watershed early on the morning of June 23. The forecast had called for five to 10 millimetres of rain. Instead, more than 100mm – in excess of 130 in some spots – fell in the span of a few hours.
With its reservoirs already nearing capacity and no time to react, the GRCA found its hands were tied.
“This really came out of the blue,” said Boyd. “This discharge was so large, we just didn’t have the capacity to manage it.
“It happened so quickly. We just simply didn’t have the luxury of time.”
With water pouring in from the northern part of the system, the GRCA had no option but to release water from the full reservoirs at Belwood (Shand Dam) and Conestogo lakes.
Challenging the rationale for leaving little capacity behind the dams during an excessively wet spring, West Montrose resident Tony Dowling was especially critical of the lack of communication to residents, who received flood warnings too late to react by emptying their basements or putting out sandbags.
The GRCA is usually accurate with its flood forecasting, he said, “except this time. You got caught with your pants down.”
He questioned the delay in letting residents know of the risks, even when officials knew water flows in the system would lead to more than the minor flooding in the original forecast.
“Was there negligence on the part of some party? Who’s responsible, and who’s going to compensate me and other residents?” he asked in light of the flood damage.
Boyd said it wasn’t until early in the afternoon that the agency became aware the problem was growing much larger than expected. Rain gauge measurements triggered the initial warnings about 3:30 a.m., mustering GRCA staff. But it was 1 p.m. before earlier, more optimistic flood forecasts began to change.
Still, it was another couple of hours before residents were warned, by which time it was really too late, said Dowling, calling for better communication procedures.
“We have to find a better way to get forecast information out more quickly,” Boyd acknowledged.
West Montrose resident Hans Pottkamper called for changes to the GRCA’s practices, including much earlier warnings to residents. Other suggestions included having sandbags and other mitigation supplies on hand, doing a better job of road closures – there were more than a few spectators on hand – and helping residents with compensation for damage.
“Some of that damage was very avoidable,” he said of the need for early warning of flood risks.
On the compensation front, township chief administrative officer David Brenneman said Woolwich will be looking at options for provincial disaster relief funds both for its own costs related to flooding and for residents who may not have been insured.
Sharing residents’ concerns, councillors pushed for an explanation for the events of last Friday.
“Was this just a one-shot deal where something went wrong? Was it mismanagement?” asked Coun. Murray Martin of the lack of storage capacity in the reservoirs.
Coun. Mark Bauman noted the GRCA’s dams are designed to buy time for residents to prepare for flooding, asking how it was the reservoirs were left to get so full, especially with the ground very saturated with water – there was no capacity to absorb more water.
“Saturated ground is like concrete – it has nowhere to go but downhill,” he said of the flooding that ensued.
Responding to a question from Coun. Patrick Merlihan, Boyd noted there has been no provincial money for new flood-control measures since the mid-1990s. As well, new dams are unlikely to be pass a cost-benefit analysis, while facing a slew of environmental hurdles.
By meeting’s end, residents appeared largely unmollified by the explanations, with officials looking ahead to measures to avoid a repeat of last week’s chain of events. The township is meeting with the GRCA and Waterloo Regional Police today (Thursday) to discuss what happened and the next steps in dealing with the fallout.
“It’s unfortunate the way everything came down. All we can do now is look at how we do better next time,” said Mayor Sandy Shantz.
Woolwich has yet to tally the cost of dealing with the emergency situation on June 23 or the resultant cleanup and repair issues.
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