The River Runneth Over; Nature Rejoices

This past winter, the Southern Ontario landscape was covered in one of the densest snow packs recorded in over 30 years (GRCA News Room, February 2014). Extremely cold temperatures also meant that much of the Grand River and Lake Erie – two interconnected water systems – became almost entirely covered in ice, raising fears that a rapid snow melt could generate high runoff, high river flows, and ice jams (GRCA News Room, February 2014). Thankfully, we saw a very slow rise in temperatures throughout February and March which allowed the snow pack to shrink at a manageable pace and limited the number of flood damages, evacuations, and road closures (Clark, April 2014). These negative threats to human livelihood mean that water bodies and rivers in Ontario are controlled by management authorities with specific goals and jurisdictions.

Ontario Conservation Authorities were first established in 1946 to coordinate between the local and provincial-level governments, as well as manage interactions between both land and water resources (Boyd, Smith & Veale, 2000). The Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA) is the management body which monitors the status of the Grand River watershed – this being its primary function as an organization, though it also maintains a host of other services related to outdoor recreation, outdoor education, policy development, forestry,  and aggregate extraction (GRCA, 2014). GRCA programs are largely self-funded and receive limited funding from government grants and municipal levies (Boyd, Smith & Veale, 2000).

Photo credit to GRCA, 2014.

The Grand River itself is part of the Canadian Heritage River System and 787, 000 residents live along its 300 kilometer length from Dufferin County to Port Maitland (see the map, above, for context) (Boyd, Smith & Veale, 2000). Over the past 60 years, the GRCA has shifted away from structural approaches for flood management (i.e. dams and dykes) and maintained a program of non-structural approaches including floodplain management, flood forecasting and warning, and watershed planning (Boyd, Smith & Veale, 2000). After winters like the one we just experienced, GRCA employees are hard at work coordinating with municipal leaders on emergency flood response plans meant to protect residents and industry along the Grand River (GRCA News Room, February 2014).

Floods loom large in human historical accounts (see this long List of Floods Wikipedia article), though deeply-embedded tensions exist over controlling this natural resource versus preserving it in its natural state (see the Living River Foundation). The GRCA has been largely successful in navigating the diverse socio-ecological factors (i.e. political decisions, land use changes, climate changes) influencing the Grand River watershed and its associated flooding potential (Boyd, Smith & Veale, 2000). This success has been gained, in part, through the funding model and holistic ecological management approach taken by the organization; local municipalities support and fund only a select number of relevant programs, and both land and water resources are approached as one complete system (Boyd, Smith & Veale, 2000). This year’s flooding potential along the Grand River has highlighted to many people the importance of management authorities, like the GRCA, which aim to control the threat of flooding to human livelihood.

I fully acknowledge that flooding can damage property, infrastructure, and in the long run, hinder economic development in an area (APFM, May 2013). However, I think it is also important to recognize that flooding (like fire) plays an essential role in ecosystem functioning (Annand, 2008; Pyne, 2010). A functioning ecosystem, in turn, supports human economic, social, and cultural activities (Naeem et al., 2009). Saying that ‘nature rejoices’ at a flood may be a bit hyperbolic in this case, but hints at the one-sided argument we present when we fight against flooding.

Though we currently live within landscapes already formed by a long history of decisions around land use and resource management, I have hope that the evolution of our human relationship with flooding will entail significantly greater levels of proactive, well-informed planning. Such planning efforts would first look to preserving natural systems and working within existing disturbance regimes (e.g. Folke et al., 2007).

The Grand River spills over its banks in Cambridge, ON.
The Grand River spills over its banks in Cambridge, ON.


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