This article was written by Matthew McClearn and was published in the Globe & Mail on June 24, 2022.
Budget constraints force the National Capital Commission to defer maintenance until assets reach what it describes as ‘near-critical condition’
A Crown corporation that is Ottawa-Gatineau’s largest landowner expects climateinduced damage to its properties to “increase exponentially, as will complaints” and warns it might not be able to keep up with repairs.
In an assessment of its exposure to risks and vulnerabilities from climate change released Thursday, the National Capital Commission said it’s already deferring maintenance owing to budget constraints until assets reach what it described as “near-critical condition.”
The NCC manages more than one-10th of lands within the capital region, including federal buildings, parks and numerous other assets – estimated to be collectively worth $2.2-billion.
Yet summer heat and droughts are causing its roads and bridges to deteriorate more rapidly, reducing their lives by as much as half. It’s also fostering algae blooms that have clogged water pumps. Intense rainfall is already causing flooding that erodes shorelines and threatens to wash away archeological sites. Shorter, warmer winters have also been disrupting NCC programs such as skating on the Rideau Canal and skiing in Gatineau Park.
Climate change is expected to exacerbate such existing challenges – and create new ones. Meanwhile, the NCC’s parks are still recovering from repeated floods in 2017 and 2019, each causing tens of millions of dollars in damage. A month after an intense windstorm known as a derecho struck the region, crews continued to clear forested sites this week; several remain closed.
Emily Rideout, the NCC’s sustainable development program officer, said those successive extreme-weather events highlighted a need to draw up detailed plans to adapt.
“We have experiences that are telling us we need to be better prepared for these events,” she said. “And we have data telling us that there’s more to come.”
The NCC manages a range of roads, bridges, 1,600 properties, nearly two dozen parks, riverside paths, water and waste water systems, and telecommunications infrastructure. It also manages a collection of approximately 4,000 artworks and furniture, which are periodically displayed in its six official residences.
Thursday’s report anticipates that more numerous winter freeze-thaw cycles will damage concrete, masonry and roofs. Heritage buildings, many of which lack modern insulation and weren’t designed for extreme heat, could become infernal hellholes for occupants. Artworks, particularly those made from wood and paper, are vulnerable to heat and humidity, and could become increasingly difficult to protect.
The report is part of a three-year initiative by the NCC to adapt to climate change. By next fall, it promises to complete a 10year plan that will propose solutions for addressing identified hazards. Ms. Rideout pointed to research that asserts that the benefit-to-cost ratio of “pro-active” adaptation to climate change effects could be as high as 38 to 1 should greenhouse-gas emissions continue on their current trajectory, or 9 to 1 under a scenario of reduced emissions.
“We’re very aware of what the literature is saying: that being pro-active and planning for this will be the more affordable approach, rather than waiting for damages to happen and being in catch-up and repair mode all the time,” she said.
The NCC said it has already begun to address some threats, for example by applying rubber-based sealants to roads to protect them from heat, and building riverside paths to better resist erosion by adding riprap and vegetation. But it said its annual $92-million budget has been frozen since 2009, and warned that if rising climate risks aren’t properly managed, it will be forced to request more funding, decrease service or abandon some programs and assets.
The organization acknowledged deficiencies such as “an absence of a climate lens” to nearly all of its internal processes, from asset inspections to land use planning, and said it doesn’t collect data about the cost of extreme weather.
Many of the report’s findings echoed those contained in a separate climate vulnerability and risk assessment released earlier this week by the City of Ottawa. The municipality also expects higher temperatures, increased precipitation, and more flooding, tornadoes and heat waves.
The city’s report anticipates a wide range of consequences such as increased harm to trees and algae blooms; additional demand for air conditioning in schools, low-income housing and community buildings; falling agricultural yields; intensification of invasive species; and declines in winter tourism. It warned that climate change could result in interruptions to city services, increased costs and reduced service levels.
“To protect livability and prosperity in Ottawa, action is needed within three years on 40 priority risks,” the city said in a statement.