CBC: Councillor wants answers on potential rise of Jock River

By Joanne Chianello

The Ottawa city councillor who demanded answers about alterations to the Jock River flood plain says the responses have only raised further questions — including what might happen if the changes cause water levels to rise, as an

engineering firm has warned.

Coun. Catherine McKenney submitted a formal inquiry to the city's planning staff last month about the removal of 291,000 cubic metres of watershed storage north of the Jock River, between Highway 416 and Greenbank Road.

"I am wholly unsatisfied with the answers," McKenney said after receiving the city's official response, which is attached to the agenda for Thursday's planning committee meeting.

The councillor said there were no answers to questions about why a senior staff member told a provincial regulator that council supported a plan to move huge amounts of soil within the Jock River flood plain, nor whether the city followed its own official plan when staff supported the alteration.

Now, a 2019 consultant's report made public as part of McKenney's inquiry indicates there could be a one-to-six-centimetre rise in "peak water levels" due to the flood plain changes.

"What happens with the river conditions downstream of the Jock River?" McKenney asked, adding staff provided "absolutely no answers to that."

The developer applied for a 'cut and fill' permit, proposing to remove some soil near the river and build up the more northerly areas of the flood plain. (CBC)

Mapping wasn't updated

Behind McKenney's concerns is a complex, multi-year effort by developer Caivan Communities to alter 100 hectares of the Jock River flood plain.

In 2018, Caivan applied to the city for an official plan amendment — considered a significant change to the city's long-term land-use blueprint — to allow future residential development on what was a flood plain.

Caivan and its engineering experts, J.F. Sabourin and Assoc., said there were "inaccuracies" in the current 100-year flood line that was last revised in 2005.

Based on city staff's recommendation, council agreed to allow future residential development in the area, with the understanding that a new flood plain mapping exercise would be undertaken.

Indeed, the actual bylaw for this specific official plan amendment — it's known as OPA 212 — states that "the City of Ottawa and the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RVCA) will be undertaking a review of the Jock River flood plain mapping."

Furthermore, the city staff report to council stated: "If the updated mapping reduces the flood plain as predicted by the applicant, the City will update the Official Plan and zoning overlays as appropriate."

But that mapping was never updated. The RVCA concluded that the existing 2005 map was still valid, and so did the city. 

According to the staff response to McKenney, the city's own engineering consultants, EWRG, determined "that a reduction in the flow used for the 2005 flood risk study was not warranted."

To be clear, council never explicitly directed staff to report back about the mapping exercise. Still, when there was no update, "the assumption would be that nothing is moving ahead," McKenney said. 

Contentious letter

Instead, Caivan applied to the RVCA for a "cut and fill" permit, which the conservation authority's executive board approved last November after RVCA staff ultimately said they were "comfortable" with the application.

Since then, the developer has removed, or cut, 116,000 cubic metres of soil near the river and built up, or filled, the more northerly areas of the flood plain with 407,000 cubic metres of soil. 

The RVCA has said it was one of the most significant files it's ever dealt with.

The same day the RVCA's executive board was voting on Caivan's application, Lee Ann Snedden, the city's director of planning services, wrote to the RVCA "expressing the City of Ottawa's support for the approval of the application."

She went on to say: "We want to reinforce the support Council has expressed for this file, founded on the comprehensive work completed by the applicant and its consulting team ..."

McKenney has balked at Snedden's representation of council in this letter. One of the key questions of the councillor's inquiry asks under whose authority the letter was sent.

The answer? Because council had agreed to change the official plan for future development of the area, "the letter reflects official plan policies" and hence "no further council instruction was required."

On the one hand, the OPA 212 bylaw clearly approves the land be designated as residential. But the bylaw also states that a flood plain mapping review would be undertaken; the approval was not based on the premise of a major cut-and-fill operation.

McKenney contends that the city was not adhering to the official plan amendment by supporting Caivan's application, and certainly misrepresented council.

"As a city councillor, I have never given my approval in any way that allows for the fill of a flood plain that isn't balanced and doesn't have flood plain mapping alongside of it," said the councillor.

Caivan has said it worked diligently with engineers and the RVCA for years to ensure that its development would have no impact either upstream or downstream. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Rise in peaks levels

Caivan has said it worked diligently with engineers and the RVCA for years to ensure that its development would have no impact either upstream or downstream.

The developer's own engineering reports by J.F. Sabourin were reviewed by yet another consultant, GHD. 

"This review was funded by the developer, managed by the city and received by the RVCA," according to city staff's response.

In its report dated Oct. 7, 2019, GHD noted that J.F. Sabourin's "hydraulic study concludes that there is a 0.01-0.06 metre increase in peak water levels … due to the proposed cut and fill activities. The report also shows an increase in flood extent from the proposed site alteration activities."

McKenney, who said dozens of residents have been in contact over this issue, wants to know more about GHD's conclusions. CBC's requests for comment late last week from GHD were not immediately returned.

"I believe that council should have been advised when the flood plain mapping was not going to be undertaken. We need to fully understand any long-term consequences of a cut and fill in a floodplain. It was always my understanding that we would have this information before anything moved forward," McKenney said.

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