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Critical lack of funding for managing Ontario’s stormwater, says Saxe

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Ontario environment commissioner Dianne Saxe sounded a warning Nov. 15 about a critical lack of funding for stormwater management in the province and said it’s up to the provincial government to lead the way in funding reform.

In a report titled Urban Stormwater Fees: How to Pay for What We Need, Saxe made several recommendations: The province should require municipalities to recover the full costs of stormwater management; the Ministry of Infrastructure should require municipalities to prepare asset management plans for their grey and green stormwater infrastructure; the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change should collaborate to support municipalities in implementing stormwater fees; and the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change should follow through on its stated policy initiatives related to stormwater management.

These initiatives include developing a policy framework for stormwater management in response to climate change, reviewing the approvals process for municipal stormwater management in order to encourage the use of best practices and updating its 2003 Stormwater Management Planning and Design Manual.

The report says that years of inadequate funding has created a stormwater infrastructure deficit of $6.8 billion. It says the gap could get even bigger as population growth leads to the creation of more impermeable surfaces, which would worsen runoff. There may also be additional costs to upgrade or replace existing stormwater infrastructure to deal with changes in precipitation due to climate change. As the funding gap increases, the report notes, so will the economic and environmental impacts of deficient stormwater management.

"Most Ontario municipalities do not have the money to do what they know needs to be done to properly manage stormwater," the report says. "Only about 35 per cent of municipalities that responded to our survey said that they currently recover the full costs associated with managing stormwater. Forty-three per cent… do not even have asset management plans for their stormwater infrastructure."

The report is based, in part, on replies to a survey the commissioner’s office sent to all 444 Ontario municipalities. Seventy-seven replies were received. The report notes that many municipalities, largely northern, rural or upper-tier municipalities, don’t provide stormwater management services and the survey would not have applied to them.

There is a hodgepodge of agencies with jurisdiction over stormwater management, the report says, including municipalities, conservation authorities and provincial ministries. Then it adds that "the overlapping roles and responsibilities can be bewildering, even for experts."

Most municipalities fund infrastructure out of property taxes, a system the report says "simply has not worked."

"It has been too difficult for municipal councils to allocate the necessary funds, in competition with other priorities," it reads. "Even more important, funding stormwater management out of taxes gives no incentive to public or private property owners to limit the runoff and pollution they create, and to the protect the natural areas and green infrastructure that absorb stormwater."

Stormwater managers are struggling with the deteriorating condition of existing infrastructure and the high costs to repair or replace it. Most municipal infrastructure in Canada was built between the 1950s and 1970s, the report says, and much of it is due for replacement.

"As a result, the cost to replace stormwater management infrastructure in poor or very poor condition in Canada is estimated to be $10 billion," the report states.

It cites an estimate, made in 2008, that it would take about $681 million a year for 10 years to close the gap between Ontario’s stormwater infrastructure needs and spending. Then it adds, bluntly: "Unfortunately this is the most recent estimate."

The report says that 21 Canadian municipalities, eight of them in Ontario, use separate stormwater fees to fund stormwater management. Those in Ontario are Aurora, Kitchener, London, Markham, Mississauga, Richmond Hill, St. Thomas and Waterloo.

It describes how each works. It also describes successful systems in Philadelphia as well as England and Wales.

"Despite many examples of successful stormwater fee programs…Ontario has done little to promote their use," it says. "No provincial ministry has provided templates, guidance material or other support" for municipalities wishing to implement stormwater fees.

It cites "the absence of provincial leadership" then refers to the efforts of groups like Green Communities Canada and Sustainable Prosperity.

It refers to the 2000 tragedy in Walkerton, Ont., when contaminated drinking water killed seven people and sickened more than 2,300 others.

A judicial inquiry headed by Justice Dennis O’Connor identified inadequate funding as one key cause. Justice O’Connor made a number of recommendations to safeguard Ontario’s drinking water, and, the report says, the government of the day promised to implement all of them.

That led to the Water Opportunities Act, 2010, which included a requirement for municipalities to prepare asset management plans for all municipal water services, including drinking, wastewater and stormwater.

"It never came into force," the report says.

Then it asks: "Sixteen years after Walkerton, do municipalities collect the full cost of their water systems? The province does not publish such data."

That is at least part of the reason the commissioner’s office sent out questionnaires, and why Saxe wrote her report.

The complete report can be downloaded from

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