Extreme winters impact environment and economy

We got hard hit by Father Winter. Joy over a pretty, white festive season quickly turned into an unofficial state of emergency when the fluffy stuff fell as rain and turned to ice. When its weight and the expansion of freezing water brought large branches and entire trees across much of Toronto crashing down on streets, vehicles and power lines, beauty turned into a beast. The Beach and parts of Scarborough were some of the areas hardest hit.

While city workers are playing catch-up with the clean-up, city hall has tallied the economic cost and requested financial relief from the province and Canada. The cost: $106 million for the ice storm and $65 million for the July flood. This clean-up cost is well above the city’s $30 million extreme weather reserve fund.

As lives return to normal, many questions remain unanswered: How many trees have we lost? Should we cut some down preemptively? Will taxes increase? Will we be better prepared next time? Here is what we know now:

Environmental Impact

Dave Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada, said the ice storm was “the most devastating to hit Toronto’s trees.”

Falling tree limbs are like girders being removed from a building, says arborist Todd Irvine. Careful pruning is needed to restore these trees’ stability. City staff estimate the remaining cleanup and pruning to cost another $50 million over the next few months. Toronto Hydro is considering more proactive forest management to protect electrical wires and transformers. The significant loss of trees puts a damper on the city’s plans to grow our urban canopy from the current 28 per cent to 40 per cent.

Water and Ecosystems

Toronto spends approximately $10–12 million each year on road salt. It is required to provide road and sidewalk safety, yet the salt and its runoff wreak havoc on infrastructure like roads, bridges and sidewalks, and is toxic to the environment. The 125,000 tonnes of salt needed every winter ‘burns’ trees, contaminates soil and ends up in our waterways, where it depletes water of oxygen and is toxic to many fish.

According to the organization Riversides, the Don River should have a natural chloride level of 50 mg per litre. It is often 300 mg and in the winter 1,500–2,000 mg per litre. That makes the Don River (as well as the Humber and Black Creek) the ‘saltiest’ rivers in Canada. We do it for safety and savings because non-saline alternatives can cost up to 10 times more than salt!

Economic Impact

Households: Affected homeowners faced personal expenses for seeking refuge in hotels, and for restaurants meals and replacing spoiled food. Some pet owners boarded animals at veterinary clinics that still had power.

Business: Canadian Property Management highlighted in an article the challenges to property managers of large apartment buildings. They, and hundreds of tenants, had to deal with inoperable elevators, darkness and loss of heat and hot water. Security became an issue when electrical garage door openers no longer functioned – doors needed to remain open to allow residents in and out.

Infrastructure and Taxes

The cost to Toronto Hydro is estimated at almost $13 million, according to Ben LaPianta, vice-president of distribution grid management. If Toronto does not receive funding from provincial or federal governments, the deficit could possibly lead to an increase in property taxes. Winter damage from salting, clearing snow and constant freezing and thawing requires extensive and expensive repairs to roads and bridges.

What Is Being Done

City council met on Jan. 10 and 13 for a special meeting about the ice storm. Council voted unanimously to ask for $114 million.

The Environment and Energy Office (EEO) is facilitating work by the electrical sector on climate change risk assessment through the WeatherWise partnership. WeatherWise is a group of more than 50 public, private, and not-for-profit organizations across Toronto, including the three levels of government, working on extreme weather resilience. David MacLeod, senior environmental specialist at the EEO, is co-ordinating funding from Natural Resources Canada for a system-wide climate change risk assessment by Toronto Hydro. MacLeod points out that all this was already in the works before the ice storm.

On Jan. 8, more than a dozen community groups convened at Metro Hall to discuss how community and city staff could collaborate on a program for climate preparedness, resilience, and adaptation. Leaders from these groups want to ensure better preparedness and resilience to major weather events. They expect more community outreach from the city, some funding and better access to existing support systems and information.

On a micro level, some Good Samaritans were proactive and neighbourly. Katie Fullerton, who lives near Gerrard Street East and Main Street, was without heat for 36 hours. Equipped with several kerosene and oil lamps, a gas stove and sleeping bags suitable for winter camping, she and her partner managed quite well. Now she is considering becoming an emergency and warming centre for her street or block. Katie plans to buy additional oil lamps and a generator and learn how to use it safely.

As Katie puts it, “We have to take care of each other.”


Martina Rowley is an environmental communicator – martina@beachbusinesshub.ca – 647-208-1810

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