For the village of Minden, the spring of 2013 will long be remembered as the spring when the Gull River rose up over its banks, flooding homes and businesses. The devastation that the flood waters bring is very real, both in the short term and the longer term. It is one of the few examples illustrating the power of the natural environment that still manages to render us almost powerless. Short of piling sandbags, there is little we can do except join together to support each other in our time of collective need.
Having said that, there are lessons to learn about how to avoid this level of devastation and despair in the future, through effective Official Plan policies and zoning by-law provisions.
Land use planning policy in Ontario is quite clear about the manner in which new development must be planned to avoid damage from flooding. Protection against damage to property and damage to life and limb are key aspects of the Natural Hazards policies set out in the Provincial Policy Statement.
In many ways, these policies grew out of the death and destruction caused by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Other floods, such as the 1974 Grand River flood (Cambridge–Galt), the 1961 Timmins storm, and the 1980 Ganaraska River (Port Hope), also underscored the vulnerability of communities to extreme flood events.
Based on historical photos and recollections of long-time residents of Minden, it is clear that the flooding experienced this past spring is typical of serious flood events affecting the Gull River and the village. Flooding is documented as far back as 1913, 1928, and 1929, as well as 1943, 1950, and 1983.
1. The Canada-Ontario Flood Damage Reduction Program
In 1975, the federal government initiated Flood Damage Reduction Program (FDRP), through Environment Canada, to curtail escalating disaster assistance payments in known flood risk areas, as well as the reliance on costly structural measures.
The FDRP consists of three steps:
- Identify and map flood risk areas.
- Designate these areas as being at risk of flooding – publish Public Information Flood Risk Maps
- Apply policies to discourage future development in flood prone areas identified through the program.
Once a flood risk area is mapped and designated both the federal and provincial governments agree not to build or support (e.g., with a financial incentive) any future flood vulnerable development in those areas. New development is not eligible for disaster assistance in the event of a flood.
The FDRP agreements require that local authorities zone according to flood risk in designated areas. In Ontario, the PPS requires municipalities to incorporate flood hazard information into municipal planning through official plans and zoning bylaws.
1.1 The Minden FDRP
It was as a result of the 1983 flooding, that flood plain mapping for the Gull River was completed in 1988 under the FDRP. The analysis of the extent of the flood risk area associated with the Gull River was calculated by Paragon Engineering Limited, based on the most severe storm event on record for the area – Timmins Storm (August of 1961). Detailed mapping of the floodplain was provided to the municipality through the FDRP program.
2. Provincial Policies Affecting Floodplains
Floodplains are the areas adjacent to rivers which have been or may in future be subject to flooding hazards. Section 3.1 of the 2005 Provincial Policy Statement requires, in part, that development be directed to areas outside of hazardous lands along rivers, streams and small inland lake systems. No development is permitted within the floodway, regardless of whether there are highpoints within the floodway which are not susceptible to flooding.
Section 3.1.2 further requires that development and site alteration shall not be permitted in areas that would be rendered inaccessible during times of flooding (3.1.2 c)); and in a floodway (3.1.2 d)). The PPS states that within the floodplain of river, stream and small inland lake systems the entire floodplain is considered to be the floodway unless a two-zone concept has been applied.
2.1 The Two Zone Concept
In some communities, a two-zone concept for flood management purposes has been applied, to provide some measure of flexibility for development. The two-zone concept recognises the inner portion of the floodplain, where flood depths and /or velocities pose a threat to life and/or property damage, as the floodway. No development or site alteration is permitted within a floodway. The outer portion of the flood plain is called the flood fringe. Within the flood fringe, flood depths and velocities are generally less severe than those experienced in the floodway. Provincial policy allows development and site alteration within the flood fringe in communities where a two-zone concept has been applied.
A two-zone concept was identified for the Gull River system, based on the FDRP mapping project completed in 1988.
2.2 Minden Hills Official Plan
The current Official Plan for Minden Hills does not implement the two-zone concept developed through the FDRP. Perhaps fear of reduced property values caused by recognizing flood susceptibility, combined with a lack of understanding of the purpose of the two-zone concept, may have prompted the Council of the day to recognise only the floodway.
The Plan precludes development within the floodway of the Gull River, as identified on Schedule “C” to the Plan. Regrettably, the Official Plan does not include any policies for the use of lands within the balance of the floodplain (flood fringe). Schedule “C” does not identify the flood fringe areas within the floodplain. As a result, current residents and business owners within the flood fringe may not have been aware of the flood susceptibility of their properties, prior to April of 2013. When the Gull River overtopped its banks, there was shock and dismay at the destruction caused by the flood waters. Yet it should not have come as a surprise. The furthest extent of the 2013 floodwaters is very similar to the area identified on the FDRP Public Information Flood Risk Map. Minden’s experience demonstrates that all lands within a floodplain are susceptible to flooding from a regional storm event – and local Official Plan policies should reflect this reality.
2.3 Minden Hills Zoning By-law
The Township’s of Minden’s Zoning By-law 06-10 is intended to implement the policies of the Official Plan. There are, however, a number of technical errors associated with the delineation of the floodplain on the Zoning Schedules for the Gull River. The By-law includes provisions for a Flood Risk (FR) Zone Overlay for the Gull River, south of the Village of Minden. Parts of the flood fringe do not appear on the Schedule and are not subject to the implementing regulations, designed to protect property owners. The By-law also includes a Flood Proofing (FP) Zone within the village. The By-law describes the FP Zone as an overlay zone, which requires building openings to be located above the levels noted in the FDRP program schedules. The Zoning schedules do not include an overlay for the FP Zone. As a result, the Zoning By-law recognises the extent of the floodway within the village of Minden, but not the area subject to flooding within the flood fringe. The failure to identify the full extent of the flood plain leads landowners and others to believe that the extent of flooding is much less than is actually the case. That is until, the river rises.
3. Final Comment
Flooding is an unpredictable, natural event, much like tornados, grass fires and earthquakes. There is a general agreement that climate change is resulting in more storms and in increased severity of storms. Problems arise when development is permitted to continue in areas which are vulnerable to flooding.
Properties within the floodplain of the Gull River and in other communities across the Province must expect that flooding will continue to occur, perhaps more often than it has in the past. Yet, it appears that few residents of flood prone areas understand the potential for damage to their homes and properties from future flood events. In the case of Minden, Members of Council, municipal staff, and local residents had little or no understanding of the extent of potential flooding in Minden prior to the 2013 flood. They were not able to rely on their Official Plan and Zoning By-law to identify this risk.
By introducing flood plain policies and regulations for flood prone areas, municipalities can begin to reduce the risk to persons and property from future flood events.
 Public Information Flood Risk Information Map – Gull River – Township of Anson, Hindon & Minden and the Township of Lutterworth. Canada-Ontario Flood Damage Reduction Program, 1988.
 Provincial Policy Statement – Definitions pg. 30.