“The numbers we’re talking about in terms of rainfall were absolutely astronomical in a very short period of time,” Frank Quarisa, acting general manager for Toronto Water, told the Star Thursday.
Workers clear drains along a stormwater channel near Wilson Ave. and Jane St. in the wake of Tuesday’s flash flood.
“We’re talking about overland flooding--water that didn’t even make its way to the sewers in many cases and eventually it made it to the storm sewers after having flooded out street areas ...
“We’re talking rainfall levels in these core areas of the city far in excess of what any kind of infrastructure that we have in the ground, or even the road infrastructure, can handle.”
The intense storm forced occupants of a floating car to swim for safety, trapped men in an elevator with water rising to their necks until swimming police officers rescued them, turned condo parking lots into raging rivers and sent streetcar passengers paddling out through sewage-laden runoff.
The city does fix failing infrastructure, but replacing--as a precaution--pipes as old as 120 years buried deep beneath busy streets is “huge in terms of dollar value and disruption,” Quarisa said, so “you have to come up with adaptive measures to get around it, ways to deal with that storm water that makes its way to the sewers.”
Most of Toronto’s sewers are combined, meaning in heavy rainfall runoff mixes with sewage from homes and businesses, and often spills into waterways or backs up into basements.
The “adaptive” measures include Toronto’s wet weather flow master plan, to improve water quality along shorelines; a subsidy program offering up to $3,400 per home to cover most of the cost of specified basement floodproofing devices; and fees for businesses discharging heavily polluted water.
During a Wednesday re-election campaign stop, Mayor John Tory touted his administration’s record on flood-proofing projects, saying efforts totalling hundreds of millions of dollars are “robust” enough to deal with increasingly intense storms as the climate changes.
No project “has been slowed down or delayed or postponed or cancelled or not proceeded with because of lack of money,” Tory told reporters.
His administration’s critics on Toronto council have, however, pushed in vain during Tory’s mayoral tenure, and Rob Ford’s before him, to accelerate the programs, and to establish a new stormwater fee on homes and businesses with large hard surfaces causing excess runoff.
“If we are going to be prepared for the ongoing extreme weather events that come with climate changes, the basement flood program has to be expedited,” along with efforts to decrease shoreline pollution from overflowing sewers, said Councillor Janet Davis.
Her efforts to accelerate the wet weather flow master plan by eight years â€”one option presented by city staff--and to roll out more quickly the basement flooding protection program have failed to get majority support.
Last year council, with Tory’s support. shelved a city staff recommendation to develop a stormwater fee, like those charged by Mississauga and other Ontario cities, paid by property owners with the largest hard surfaces, generating the most runoff.
While Tory noted the fee would not have increased total revenue, Layton said it would have created an incentive for large mall operators and developers to “tear up pavement and put back vegetation” to reduce runoff--an incentive absent now when water usage determines their fees.
Advocates also say a stormwater fee--branded a “roof tax” by Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti and then-former councillor Doug Ford, who is now premier--could have been fine-tuned to ensure fairness before being hiked in future years to boost revenues to flood-proof Toronto.
“We’re not saying we won’t have floods, but the reality is the more storm water we can keep out of the sewer, the better for everyone,” Layton said.
Councillor Jaye Robinson, Tory’s appointed public works chair, was not available for an interview but said in a statement: “The City of Toronto has a fully funded, comprehensive storm water management system,” and Toronto Water’s 10-year capital plan dedicates more than $3 billion to be spent on storm water management by 2026, including roughly $1.55 billion on the basement flooding protection program.
“Over the last three years, the city has spent over $295 million on storm water management. Improving the City of Toronto’s resiliency to extreme weather events remains a top priority at city hall.”