Residents say town's solution to repeated floods has been in the works for years
Sandbag barriers and high-powered water pumps were strewn across Irvine Road last week as residents worked overtime to save their homes from severe flood water damage during Thursday's deluge.
And what seemed like the act of Good Samaritans helping their neighbours was actually the desperate struggle of a community to prevent their properties from being destroyed due to the lack of proper drainage infrastructure in the area.
“How many times do houses have to fill with water before the town actually does something for the taxpayers of the town?” Jimmy van der Zalm said on Saturday.
After last week's rains, Irvine Road was under water. Murky run-off water several feet deep had pooled on the south side of Lakeshore Road and was steadily flooding all the properties to the north as it drained toward Lake Ontario, overwhelming the municipal drainage system.
“There’s 400 acres of farmland collecting water and it’s all being channelled under Lakeshore Road through one pipe,” Irvine Road resident Charlie Hall said.
"As it gets closer to the lake it bottlenecks and it backs up in three different spots,” van der Zalm said.
He and his brother Trevor were quick to act, bringing out sandbags and water pumps to try to save their neighbours’ homes and their own home from water damage.
But the two insist this was no heroic deed.
“We don’t need any recognition at all,” van der Zalm said.
But Hall noted, “If these guys hadn’t showed up, I’d have my insurance adjuster here today because this house would have been underwater.”
For more than three years the town has been working with residents on Irvine Road to install improved drainage in the area. After last week's close call, Hall is sick of the delays.
“We are now entering our third year of the approval process,” he said.
“What is so incredibly ironic is that it will take three weeks to do the work once it gets through the approval process,” Hall said.
Under the current plan with the town, each resident who lives along the proposed new drain will pay anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars to cover part of the costs while the town pays the remainder.
Hall said the approval process for the drain has taken so long because residents in the area are appealing to try to bring costs down. He noted one farmer thinks they will see virtually no benefit from the drain and therefore does not want to pay for it at all.
Hall himself said there are five properties at constant risk of flooding, with other properties still being affected by the build-up of water during a heavy rain.
But Hall and the van der Zalms don’t care how much it will cost them. They just want the work done so they can be relieved of the torment an impending rain storm brings, Hall said.
“I’m trying to contain myself but I’m so pissed,” a visibly frustrated Hall said.
With the constant threat of inundation looming, he said he and wife Sandy are always stressed.
“You can’t live a normal life. If I go away and it comes up, one of those six inches in six hours (rainstorms), it’s gonna do it again.”
Hall said he can’t travel anywhere that is more than a 10-hour trip home due to the anxiety he gets about a possible flood.
The constant worry is taking a toll on the mental health of several residents along Irvine Road.
Judy Benezra lives at the top of Irvine, right on the lake. Underneath her idyllic small home the ground is getting eaten away by the excess water runoff from the surrounding properties.
“It is stressful because each time it floods it gets nearer and nearer to my foundations, and I only have a little house,” she said.
Benezra’s house has a small inlet and wall of armour stones along the shoreline to protect it from wave erosion. Underneath a deck on the back of the home is a cavern carved out by rainwater runoff.
The porch has been extended several times to cover up gaping holes in the earth as the ground between the deck and house gets eaten away by the water, she said.
And while all the residents The Lake Report spoke with said they were less concerned with the amount it would cost them than they were with getting the work done as soon as possible, substantial costs have already been incurred.
The van der Zalms said they have had a total loss of their home's basement on two occasions due to flooding. It has cost them at least $90,000 in repairs and restoration, they estimated.
This most recent incident is the third since talks with the town began, van der Zalm said.
Their share of the Irvine Road drain according to a town engineering report originally was to be $81,000.
However, thanks to grants received by the town, most property owners' bills are much lower. The van der Zalms are looking at paying $36,275.
According to the report, Hall has to contribute $18,967 for the work and Benezra $9,625.
A total of 32 properties are contributing to the project and the van der Zalms' share is by far the highest of them all.
Residents will be able to repay the town on their tax bill over 20 years, Hall said.
On top of the costs accrued by repairs and the cost for the drain, the van der Zalms' insurer has refused to give them flood protection anymore since it has become such a regular occurrence, van der Zalm said.
In some ways, the residents on Irvine Road feel trapped by the flood risk.
“This property is never going to be worth what it could be as long as we have that constant threat,” Hall said.
“The continuous threat of flooding is terrifying,” he said,
“This is an emergency. This is no longer, ‘Oh, maybe it’s an emergency.’ Something has to be done, like, yesterday,” Benezra said.
In October 2020, the town installed a new catch basin near Benezra’s property.
But she said the municipality didn’t install any new pipes and hooked the catch basin up to the existing infrastructure, which was already incapable of handling the run-off during a severe storm.
Footage taken by Hall last week shows both the drains overflowing and the excess water running underneath Benezra's property, with a new gap already forming between her deck and the ground.
“Why don’t they, next week, get their bloody diggers out, dig a hole and put a pipe in from the new system to the lake. They can fiddle with all the details and the paper-pushing later.”
The final engineering report and detailed installation plans have already been finished. Residents are merely waiting for the appeal process to end, Hall said.
“We are drowning in flood water and bureaucratic paper-pushing,” Benezra said.
“The fix we need is for the Irvine Road Drainage Project to receive approval for implementation as quickly as possible,” Hall said.
The consistency of the flooding means the problem is here to stay, van der Zalm said.
“I’m a practising safety professional and in my world we do three things: we observe, we predict and we prevent,” Hall said.
“This has been observed for years, it has been predicted and is predicted that it will happen yet again, and now we have to prevent,” he said.
“We just can’t get the prevent part working yet" and that’s really up to the town, he said.