Feds need to improve planning, tracking for severe weather events, says audit
OTTAWA -- The federal government needs to get a better handle on the impact and implications of frequent severe weather events, says the commissioner of environment and sustainable development.
Commissioner Julie Gelfand's spring report finds that Canada's federal floodplain maps have not been properly updated in 20 years, building codes aren't taking into account a changing climate and decision-makers need better tools for predicting the frequency, duration and intensity of storms.
The severe weather chapter was one of three in Tuesday's spring audit, which also included a related look at how federal support for municipal infrastructure is measuring mitigation and climate impacts.
The commissioner also took aim at regulation of the cosmetics industry, which she found operates outside the constraints of many other consumer products and leaves Canadians uninformed and open to adverse health and safety incidents.
Gelfand acknowledged in an accompanying editorial that extreme weather is currently top of mind.
"At a time when scientists are predicting that extreme weather events -- with impacts that include floods, droughts and forest fires -- will become more frequent and intense, putting an aging and weakened infrastructure to an ever more difficult test, the time is ripe to consider the findings presented in these reports," Gelfand wrote.
A major wildfire in Alberta has consumed some 5,800 square kilometres and continues to burn after forcing the evacuation of more than 80,000 Fort McMurray residents earlier this month, just one of a series of recent, large-scale natural disasters. Almost 2,300 firefighters are still battling 14 active wildfires in Alberta.
The audit noted that the federal government's Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements relief fund has paid out more in the last six years than it did in the previous 39 years of its existence.
Homes and buildings under current building codes may not be strong enough to withstand coming climates -- such as extraordinary snow loads -- and municipalities need help understanding the size of culverts that may be needed in future for extreme rainfall, the audit found.
Most puzzling are unspent federal climate mitigation funds. While $253 million in federal funding for three disaster mitigation funds has been offered by Ottawa since 2011-12, only $25 million has actually been paid out, according to the audit. And under a $160-million program for mitigation through the federal disaster fund, provinces have applied for only $13 million since 2008-09 and not a penny has been paid.
"Our recommendation to the federal government is that they look at the design of these programs to determine what, in fact, is stopping the provinces and territories from applying for these funds," Gelfand told a news conference.
Her chapter on municipal infrastructure also included hard questions for the government, which the audit found distributes $2 billion annually in gas tax revenues without knowing whether projects funded are having the desired and stated environmental impacts.
The audit says a decade of gas tax transfers culminated in a 2013-14 departmental performance report at Infrastructure Canada that "includes no information about the change in environmental quality resulting from the funds."
Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi was one of a half-dozen Liberal cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries who jointly pledged earnest concurrence with the commissioner's findings Tuesday afternoon.
Sohi said the "majority" of gas tax revenues have funded municipal projects such as public transit and wastewater treatment. However his department hasn't collected data on the environmental impacts, and the government is changing that, he said.
Ottawa and the provinces are currently involved in four working group discussions to come up with a pan-Canadian climate policy by next autumn, including one group focusing specifically on mitigation policies.
"The bar is set pretty low right now," responded NDP environment critic Nathan Cullen.
"The lack of co-ordination and leadership from the federal level is stark. Canadians are being exposed to that (climate change) risk, and a risk that we don't all understand."