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Flood fallout sees need for changes to warning system

Short on mea culpas and long on finger pointing, this week’s public meeting in West Montrose was always going to be unsatisfying.

If only for fear of legal liability, officials weren’t going to admit wrongdoing or even much in the way of an apology for the events of June 23, when rivers in the Grand system overflowed their banks. Monday night’s meeting was in part about public-relations, trying to mollify residents, and in part about letting those who experienced flooding vent their spleens.

It’s unlikely anyone was truly satisfied.

The Grand River Conservation Authority explained what happened in the aftermath of a tremendous rainfall in the north part of the watershed. Much of what followed was unprecedented. The large volumes of water, coming on the heels of a wet spring that saw reservoirs at high levels, made for a much different scenario than, say, a summertime flash flood following an extended drought. We’ve seen plenty of dry summers … just not this year.

While the flooding wasn’t life-threatening, it did create hardships for some people, particularly in West Montrose. Residents were naturally unhappy, and it’s common to cast about for someone to blame.

Water levels rise and floods do happen, however. That said, the existence of an agency that monitors the river system – indeed, its mandate is to provide flood control – would lead residents to expect that more could have been done on June 23. At the very least, there could have been more warning – early and often – about the possibility of something more than the usual amounts of flooding along the river.

In the short-term, a better notification systems is probably the one doable change that could come of the GRCA’s review of the flood. While there’s talk of better monitoring and computer models for predicting future events, such things require time and money, the latter being in short supply as Queen’s Park has routinely curtailed the budgets of conservation authorities in the province. Enhancing communication, especially directly to the public, is a much easier matter.

Many of residents’ complaints center on the timing of warnings, which came hours after the GRCA itself grew concerned about water levels and flows in the system. Keeping the public in the loop right from the start would eliminate that issue.

Though the flooding wasn’t a real emergency per se, township and regional officials also found more than a few shortcomings in their own response. With them, too, there was a learning experience about information flows and coordinating efforts, which might be more critical in a situation where lives are at risk.

That lessons have been learned is to be not only hoped, but expected. If this were a one-time event, there would be less concern. Climate models, however, tells us to expect more frequent extreme weather episodes. Around here, that could translate in to more such epic rainfalls. Alternatively, there could be more droughts.

For the GRCA, such extremes pose a real problem. Its system of dams and reservoirs not only serve to mitigate floods, but store water to help augment the flow of rivers to provide useful flows downstream in a typical summer where dry weather, and even droughts, create just the opposite problem: falling reservoir levels and low flows throughout the system.

Risk can’t be eliminated. Nor, realistically, can the floods themselves – there will be more. But residents must feel like something is being done.

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