Ontario flooding report could impact New York lawsuit

Updated: November 30, 2019

Lake Ontario flood Photo by Puffin's Pictures

Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has released a long-awaited flood report on the province’s prevention efforts and how they can be improved. In July, the ministry appointed Doug McNeil, a civil engineer with decades of experience managing flooding in Manitoba, to perform the assessment.

McNeil concluded in the report that the cause of extreme flooding in Ontario was due to weather and environmental factors rather than human negligence.

“Based on an analysis of the information available for all of the systems that experienced flooding in 2019, nothing points to human error or the negligent operation of water control structures as the cause of the flooding,” he stated.

“The sheer amount of water (snow and rainfall) on the landscape directly contributed to the flooding. Measures taken by water managers everywhere were effective in reducing the magnitude of flooding and associated damages throughout the drainage basins.”

To acquaint himself with Ontario’s policies surrounding flood management and what kind of impact flooding has had on the province’s communities, McNeil took part in a nine-day community tour over two weeks.

During that time, he visited Ottawa, Pembroke, North Bay, Toronto, Muskoka, London, and Cambridge, meeting with provincial departments, municipal and conservation authorities, and taking guided tours of impacted areas.

Flooding takes a toll on Muskoka cottages

lake flooding

In October, New York State, helmed by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, filed a lawsuit against the International Joint Commission (IJC) for damages caused by Lake Ontario flooding.

The IJC was created by Canada and the United States to manage lakes and river systems that bordered both countries, resolving disputes over shared water and protecting them for the benefit of today’s citizens and future generations.

Cuomo was quoted in The Buffalo News as saying, “[The IJC] have failed to manage the lake level—period. End of story. It was their job. They failed.” He went on to say that it is unfair that the State of New York has been forced to shoulder nearly $1 billion in flood damage costs while the IJC has done nothing to mitigate the flooding.

McNeil’s report, which claims that Lake Ontario flooding damages on the Canadian side were not caused by human negligence, could play a role in the trial. “[The report] does matter. It is significant because it obviously convinced [MNRF],” explained Stanley Berger, an environmental lawyer, “but it isn’t conclusive.”

This means that the evidence within the report could be important because it is backed by expert opinion, but it is still just an opinion and ultimately it will be up to the judge whether it carries any weight.

“It’s fair for the people that are defending the commission to present all this evidence, but then to go on and say ‘by the way, the Ministry of Natural Resources accepted this evidence, so you should too,’ In my experience, that’s insulting to the court that you’re in front of,” Berger says.

Flood plain maps and flood risks

While McNeil’s report may count for a lot in the public eye, its weight in the courtroom remains to be seen. “The decision will be an independent one made by whoever the adjudicator is.”

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