The impacts of Friday’s historic flooding in the communities of Bedford and Sackville underscore the urgency of replacing outdated flood plain maps with newer ones found in the 2017 Sackville Rivers Floodplain Study.

That’s the messaging delivered by Walter Regan, past president of the Sackville Rivers Association. He believes the change could’ve helped mitigate some of the flood damage in the Bedford-Sackville area. 

In an interview, Regan said it’s time Halifax Regional Municipality passed and zoned the study’s flood plain maps. The environmental activist has spent more than 35 years advocating for and protecting the Sackville River. 

“I see flood plain zoning the same as why you wear steel toed boots or a hard hat or a seat belt. It’s a preventive measure. And it also saves money, it really does. It saves tax dollars,” Regan said. 

“Because if you’ve got to repair undersized culverts, if you’ve got to repair bridges that blow out, if the taxpayer’s got to pay for new driveways that should not have been built and all these other things, then it pays you to do flood plain mapping and stream gauging.”

Regan said under present flood plain zoning, development isn’t permitted next to the Sackville River. He believes had the 2017 plan been implemented, less housing — and possibly less hard surface — would have been built inside the one-in-20 year and one-in-100 year flood plains.

“So, HRM did the 2017 Sackville River Floodplain Study. Published it, but never implemented it, never zoned it,” Regan said. “That to me is wrong. Now, the flood plain zoning would not have stopped the flood. But it likely would have mitigated some of the damages.”

Accounting for climate change

The 2017 study recommended the new flood maps be adopted into planning measures such as zoning and by-laws. Those maps can be accessed here.

“While the upper reaches of the Sackville River are mainly undeveloped, its lower reaches, and most of the Little Sackville River, are quite highly urbanized, which is both increasing river flows as well as creating vulnerabilities,” the report said.

It also stated the first recommendation typically found in flood mitigation studies is controlling development within the flood plain. This is to minimize potential future flood risks to vulnerable areas. Notes the report:

A common practice is to prevent any development within the “High Risk” zone, or 1 in 20 year floodplain, and allow only non- permanent uses that do not infringe on the floodplain in the “Moderate Risk” zone, or 1 in 100 year floodplain. It is worthwhile to note that any construction in the floodplain that somehow restricts the flow of water will increase flooding risks to the upstream areas. 

It is therefore fundamental that before the Municipality considers allowing any form of development within the 1 in 100 year floodplain, impacts of this action be studied, understood and accepted. Since planning is oriented towards controlling future development, the flood lines should consider future climatic conditions and therefore take into account climate change.

“Sackville Drive overflowed. It was six to eight inches of water going over the top of Sackville Drive,” Regan said. “The 101 (highway) at the corner of Cobequid and Sackville Drive, that all flooded. So we’ve got to mitigate. We’ve got to get in there and do something.”

Two white vehicles and a black SUV half submerged and floating in flood waters that filled the intersection of Sackville Drive and Cobequid Road in Lower Sackville on July 21, 2023.
Flood waters filling the intersection of Sackville Drive and Cobequid Road in Lower Sackville on July 21, 2023. Credit: Ray McKinnon

‘Reluctance to change zoning’

Explaining why it updated the Sackville River flood plain maps in 2017, HRM notes on its website that cities across Canada are experiencing an increased number of extreme weather events, “often with heavy rainfall over a short period of time.” This can lead to river flooding.

The one-in-20 year and one-in-100 year flood lines of the Sackville River and Little Sackville River were developed in the 1980s under the joint Canada-NS Flood Damage Reduction Program. 

But changes in land use and precipitation patterns made the old flood plain maps outdated, leading HRM to commission the 2017 study. 

“The municipality has a responsibility to regulate development in areas prone to frequent flooding to ensure the protection of people and infrastructure,” HRM wrote.

The 2017 study was presented to regional council in August, 2018. Bedford-Wentworth Coun. Tim Outhit said while there was “no one thing that happened,” it wasn’t implemented due to other priorities and the fact it was tied in with the Regional Plan.

“We’ll have the flood. There’s no stopping that when it comes. But again, the effects could’ve been mitigated under the new mapping. The professional engineers who did (the mapping) applied the best existing climate change models,” Regan said. 

“So, then the flood plain increases. And that means more properties have to be protected. That means zoning’s got to change. And there’s quite a bit of reluctance to change zoning.”

About 10 years ago, the Little Sackville watershed was approaching 55% hard surface. Regan said this means a one-in-10 year flood acts like a one-in-20, and a one-in-100 year flood acts like a one-in-200.

He wonders how much of the watershed is hard surface today.

“Development is still ongoing, and also we still have more and more hard surface,” he said.

‘Best restoration is prevention’

Regan said parts of Bedford currently outside the “old” one-in-100 year flood plain map experienced significant flooding on Friday. He said those areas would’ve been inside the new 100-year flood plain. 

“The best restoration is prevention,” he said. “HRM passing the flood plain (study). That’s mitigation right there.”

Beyond using the new mapping to change zoning, Regan said he’d like to see other measures undertaken to help mitigate the impacts of future floods. 

That includes waterproofing buildings in the flood plain whenever possible, but also acquiring properties and knocking them down to allow for floodable green spaces. Regan said this allows the river to overflow its banks properly, “as it’s meant to.” 

Brown muddy waters off the Sackville River overflow its banks. A tree with a sign affixed to it is usually on land, but is now surrounded by flood waters.
The impact of Friday’s flood waters was evident on Saturday, July 22 all along the Sackville Greenway trail connecting Sackville Drive to Glendale Drive. The trail runs along the Little Sackville River. Credit: Yvette d'Entremont

Flood mapping needed across HRM

Regan stressed that returning land to a natural flood plain is also a cost effective way to protect communities.

“We give them (residents) fair market value. Environmentally, we get the flood plain back. We get the riparian edge. But we also get walkways or parks, linear parks,” he said.

“Now, I’m talking about the Sackville River, because that’s what hit. But there are about 100 watersheds in HRM. And none of them outside of the Sackville River have flood plain zoning.”

As the number of extreme weather events increases, Regan wants HRM to fund annual flood plain mapping and stream gauging across the municipality. 

While it would be impossible to complete that work all at once, Regan said such an initiative could be picked away at each year. 

“Show leadership across the country. We are going to protect our residents. We’re going to protect the environment. We’re going to adapt for the climate that’s changing,” Regan said. 

“Because this year we had a drought. We had huge forest fires. Now we had the flood of ‘23. That just leaves a hurricane. We’ve got to adapt. One way to adapt, and which costs relatively little, is prevention.”

After decades of vocally stressing the importance of the Sackville River’s flood plain and advocating for flood mitigation measures, Regan said watching the destruction that unfolded Friday was upsetting.   

“You may talk about the 100-year storm, but when you live it, it’s another story. But I don’t want to be the guy to say, ‘I told you so.’ I really don’t,” Regan said. 

“What I want is for the decision makers to understand the problem and to move forward to help mitigate or solve the problem.”

Muddy waters fill a neighbourhood street and front yards late in the evening as lights from the flooded homes and cars in the driveways reflect off the water.
Lower Sackville’s Sunnyvale Subdivision on Friday night. Credit: Yvette d'Entremont

‘Cost and resistance from property owners’

In addition to adopting new flood lines into planning regulations, the 2017 Sackville flood plain study also lists purchasing at-risk properties as one of its recommendations. It states:

The impacted individuals are now permanently safe, properties at risk can be restored to the natural floodplain, upstream flooding risks can be reduced, there is no further maintenance cost or residual risk, and the riverfront area can now be enhanced for public enjoyment. The challenges are its cost and resistance from property owners. Where not yet developed, purchasing floodplain lands can ensure their protection in the future.

However, the report also offers three additional flood mitigation recommendations. Those include implementation of stormwater infiltration measures, increasing channel capacity through river restoration, and — as a last resort — flood protection infrastructure.

“Options such as upgrading bridge structures, building berms, or raising the level of the land or homes, should only be used after the above options have been exhausted,” the report said. 

“They will be expensive, require maintenance, will move the problem downstream and will place public safety at increased risk for events greater than the design event.”

Extremely harrowing drive

On Friday night, social media was full of frightening accounts as flood waters surged in impacted areas of HRM. 

One person dressed in a bright red jacket pushes an Inflatable boat filled with four rescuers into the flooded parking lot of Bedford Place Mall on Friday evening.
Taken from a Halifax Search and Rescue video, a crew heads into the flood waters of the Bedford Place Mall parking lot on July 21, 2023 to rescue stranded people. Credit: Halifax Search and Rescue

Halifax Ground Search and Rescue crews used boats to rescue people trapped by flood waters at Bedford Place Mall (video here). Homes were damaged, and motorists were forced to abandon their vehicles as rapidly rising floodwaters swallowed them.

One woman shared her experience with the Halifax Examiner. She left Middle Sackville’s Millwood subdivision Friday evening to get her university-aged daughter who was working alone and stranded on Bluewater Road in Bedford. 

Until she and her husband started driving and found themselves unable to turn around, they had no idea just how bad things were.

The trip to Bluewater Road and back usually takes them 30 minutes. But on Friday, it took two and a half hours. She described the drive as shocking and terrifying. She said:

We couldn’t turn around at all once we got onto Sackville Drive. We were stuck. Then Beaver Bank (road) to the highway was closed off. So we thought, ‘OK, we’ll take the Cobequid ramp.’ Holy hell! Cars were floating, Cobequid (Road) was a rushing river, and Glendale (Drive) was under water with cars submerged over their trunks. 

We had to do all kinds of back streets and then set back out via Lucasville to Bluewater. We had a police escort to get back out of the industrial park to Kingswood. We had to go through a roundabout where the pavement was washed away beneath us. It was extremely harrowing. The emergency alert didn’t come through until everything was already a disaster. I worry about the next time.

“We have to have legislation’ 

As Bedford-Wentworth Coun. Tim Outhit toured his district with city staff on Saturday, he was immediately struck by just how much worse things were in the parts of Bedford that typically flood.

But he was also shocked at the extent of the damage in “whole new areas” where people were experiencing badly flooded basements for the first time. 

Then there was the damaged infrastructure. 

Many road shoulders had disappeared. The Lions Pool on the Bedford waterfront was underwater. Much of the park and playground around it was damaged. Range Park was substantially flooded, and there was “significant damage” to Fish Hatchery Park .

In parts of Bedford, culverts were gone, and at many homes driveways were cut off as gaps yawned between them and the street.

“The one thing that really shocked me was at Bluewater and Hammonds Plains Road where I looked and I saw a ladder floating in the water,” Outhit recalled in an interview. 

“And they said, ‘Oh, no, councillor, that’s not a ladder. That’s the top of a van, and that’s the ladder strapped to its roof.’ So that was quite a shock.”

A red car half submerged in floodwaters on a street filled with deep water, with buildings off in the distance.
Flooding on Bluewater Road. Credit: Kelly Regan/Facebook

A video shared by Bedford Basin MLA Kelly Regan on social media shows the extent of the flooding on Bluewater Road.

As Outhit focuses on the clean up and his community’s most impacted residents and businesses, he agrees that the new flood plain maps and legislation are needed, particularly when it comes to residential development.

“Walter [Regan] is right. We have to have the legislation to make sure no residences are built in those areas. Condos, apartments, houses, whatever,” Outhit said. 

Union Street flooding

Long-suffering residents on Bedford’s Union Street once again experienced extreme flooding. Outhit said all three levels of government must have “real serious discussions” about homes there, particularly on the street’s water side. 

He believes that includes conversations about purchasing homes.

“This just goes on and on and on. This time was worse, but it’s certainly not the only time I’ve been in many of the homes. I don’t think it can be engineered,” Outhit said. 

“Then there’s the cost of engineering it, which wouldn’t be a guaranteed outcome. I think that it’s time to start buying some of those homes. And I suspect [Sackville Councillor] Paul [Russell] and Walter [Regan] would have similar concerns in some areas of Sackville.”

A trifecta of photos showing homes and vehicles half submerged in flood waters.
Flooding on Union Street in Bedford. Credit: @Clarissa08/Twitter

Bluewater Road also a key priority

Outhit said for years HRM and the federal government have also discussed a flood water mitigation plan to raise Hammonds Plains Road in the Bluewater Road area. 

He considers that yet another priority.

“Certainly that’s going to have to happen before even more development in Sandy Lake or Hammonds Plains or anywhere else,” Outhit said. 

“It’s not just a matter of raising the roads a little. I think that might even require a bridge, because that area floods. And it’s a very busy road, with 20,000 cars a day plus.”

In addition, Bedford’s ‘main street’ along the Bedford Highway — which includes the Sunnyside and Bedford Place malls — experienced intense flooding. 

There are outstanding questions about what impact zoning the flood plain will have on existing businesses there, so Outhit also wants to explore engineering solutions that could protect them.

“You can’t say, hey, we’re shutting down our main street and hopefully these folks will be able to get insurance and their mortgages and this sort of thing,” Outhit said. “So it’s not just a matter of saying, ‘Let’s just zone it a flood plain and all our problems go away.’”

‘Mother Nature is merciless and powerful’

As the clean up continues, Outhit is asking residents to be patient as all three levels of government and the private sector set priorities. 

“We’re asking people for patience, and I’m so sorry that we have to do that again. And we’re probably going to have to delay some projects,” Outhit said. 

“We’re not going to be paving a nice little path in a playground while people can’t get out of their driveways or can’t get to work … We’re going to have to be all hands on deck with the private and public sector, working together with manpower and equipment shortages. It’s another call to action.”

Pointing to the lives lost — including two young children — Outhit said it’s critical we take extreme weather events seriously.

“We’ve had deaths this time. Particularly when children are involved, that just makes you sick to your stomach,” Outhit said. “But we have now learned that Mother Nature is merciless and powerful. We have to listen.”

‘We have to be ready’

Lower Sackville Coun. Paul Russell agrees. 

One of the things that I try to do and try to advocate for is seeing these natural disasters as a reason to react in the moment. But also we have to look forward and see them well before they happen,” Russell said in an interview. 

“We also have to plan for them well before they happen, because they are going to continue. They are going to ramp up. And we have to be ready.”

In the aftermath of Fiona, the recent wildfires, and now the floods, Russell said it’s become clear we need to be better prepared “in every respect.”

“And no matter how prepared we are, things are going to go wrong,” he added.

One of the things HRM can do, he said, is apply what’s been learned to future development and planning. 

After Friday’s flooding, Russell said it became obvious the 2017 flood plain map missed the intersection at Glendale Drive and Cobequid Road. That area rapidly filled with water, stranding several motorists who were forced to leave their vehicles.

“That’s not on the map. So now we can update that and say we need to consider a slightly larger (flood plain) area,” Russell said. 

“This was probably a one-in-100 storm…And with the climate change that we are having, we will see these one-in-100 storms happening more often.”

Russell said it’s critical to ensure all infrastructure — from homes and businesses to streets, sidewalks, and highways — is ready to accommodate these disasters. 

“We need to have better planning of all of this,” he said. 

A bright yellow sign with black letters proclaims Street Flooding, with an abandoned car and wet road behind it.
A street flooding sign at the Glendale Drive entrance to Old Beaver Bank Road on Saturday, July 22. Credit: Yvette d'Entremont

‘This is critical’

Russell also agrees that Sackville’s flood plain mapping and land-use bylaws need updating. Stressing that it has always been a priority for him, he said what happened on Friday further highlights why it’s needed. 

“We can’t have situations like this where people’s homes are not designed for the one-in-100 year, the one-in-20 year floods. We know that they’re going to happen. History has proven that over and over and over again,” Russell said. 

“We’ve seen that all the time with the Sackville Cross Road and the flooding that has happened in the houses behind that. So we need to get this going.”

Cautioning that it won’t be completed this year, Russell explained that one of the reasons for the delay in implementing this particular set of land use bylaw changes is it requires a senior planner “with the breadth and depth of experience.” 

Combined with a number of significant and ongoing planning projects (regional, centre, and suburban plans), Russell said HRM hasn’t yet had the necessary resources to develop the Sackville flood plain land use bylaw change. 

His expectation is to see it happen in the 2024 calendar year. Recalling his first meeting with HRM’s new chief administrative officer Cathie O’Toole, Russell said the Sackville flood plain was one of the first issues he brought up.

“We need this report done. This is critical. This has been going on for too long. I get that we need the right personnel to be able to put it together and that we have a lot of other priorities,” Russell said. 

“But we need this report done. We need to make sure that we are prepared for disasters. They’re going to happen. We’ve seen that. And they’re going to continue.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. I really hope these suburban councillors understand the role sprawl plays in worsenening events like this. They’re saying all this now, but I hope they remember it when the new density-focused Regional Plan comes up for a vote at the end of the year