Concrete, asphalt and buildings have replaced the natural shores and marshy land that used to temper the ebb and flow of water through the seasons.
Sylvia Oljemark has lived near the Rivière des Prairies for more than 70 years, witnessing the transformation of what was once a natural shoreline into suburbia.
“I had a paradise of a childhood. The river became my life. I lived on the river. I swam across it, back and forth and up and down. I loved it,” recalled Oljemark, 78, a founding member of the Green Coalition, dedicated to protecting natural green spaces like the 365-hectare l’Anse-à-l’Orme in Pierrefonds.
“All through those years, I witnessed how the practice of landfilling into the river and along the shore, and then building on it, has completely altered the whole profile of the river shoreline,” said Oljemark, who still lives in the small house in the western part of the Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough that her father bought in 1946.
Concrete, asphalt and buildings have replaced the natural shores and marshy land that used to temper the ebb and flow of water through the seasons, she said.
“These extraordinary floods that we’re witnessing now have just brought the whole matter to a head,” she said.
Wetlands are nature’s way of reducing the risk and intensity of flooding, she noted. They act as natural sponges that trap and slowly release water from various sources, including rain, snowmelt and waterways that overflow their banks.
The floods that have hit Quebec for the second time in two years, forcing the evacuation of more than 9,500 people, demonstrate the urgency of protecting remaining wetlands, said Oljemark, who attended Sunday’s Montreal city council meeting in Pierrefonds with other coalition members to press Mayor Valérie Plante for a commitment.
On Friday, the group Sauvons l’Anse-à-l’Orme issued a press release calling on Plante to protect all of the 185 hectares of wetland meadows in l’Anse à l’Orme.
And Nature Québec, representing a coalition of environmental organizations, demanded that the Coalition Avenir Québec government cancel its plan to weaken a 2017 provincial law protecting wetlands and bodies of water.
Lowering the amount of contributions that must be paid in compensation for the loss of wetlands and bodies of water “will act as an incentive in favour of their destruction, urban sprawl and the destruction of wetlands and bodies of water, including flood zones. These environments are essential for purifying water and serving as a sponge and buffer zone during floods,” said Christian Simard, the director of Nature Québec, in a statement Saturday.
As environmentalists pressed for action, Plateau-Mont-Royal Mayor Luc Ferrandez let loose on Facebook Saturday against society’s failure to prevent flooding by building on flood plains and not taking action to protect woodlands and wetlands. He also railed against a proposed new baseball stadium, pipelines, highways and other environmental ills, saying people have been acting like spoiled children.
“F— you, all of us,” Ferrandez said in the post, which he later deleted. Plante said Sunday that Ferrandez chose the wrong moment to make the remarks, but that he had apologized.
Oljemark said Ferrandez made “a blooper,” but that his frustration was understandable, even if the way he expressed it was inappropriate.
The fact that so many homes have been built in flood zones over the years demonstrates “decades of abuse and acting in bad faith,” she said.
“We’ve been squeezing the river into an ever narrowing channel, so the river has nowhere to go but up,” she said.
“You can’t abuse the river and expect it to treat you kindly,” said Oljemark, whose group has pressed for protection of wetlands and other natural spaces since the 1980s.
The situation is tragic for flooded homeowners who in many cases have invested their life savings in their properties, she said.
Owners of homes that will probably face repeated flooding should be adequately compensated to move elsewhere, she said.
Pascale Biron, chair of the department of Geography, Planning and Environment at Concordia University, said it’s essential to ensure that no new construction is permitted in flood zones.
But she added that saving wetlands, while important, is not enough to prevent future floods, and that climate change is expected to increase the frequency of unpredictable weather events.
Patrick Barnard, a member of the Green Coalition, said the catastrophic floods illustrate the need for the Plante administration to make good on its election promise to scuttle a proposed 5,500-unit housing project in l’Anse-à-l’Orme and preserve the entire site as a regional nature park.
“These floods, following the ones two years ago, show that there’s an absolute necessity for Montreal to preserve all existing wetlands on the island. And the most important ones right now are the 185 hectares of wet meadows in Pierrefonds,” he said.