The Second Great Ottawa Flood

Muskrat

It was only two years that the Ottawa-Gatineau region suffered its worst flood in decades. Extraordinary amounts of rain fell in April and May (including 159 millimetres in April alone), causing the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers to burst their banks and bring devastation to houses and infrastructure situated in the flood zone. We coped with it, we learned from it, we moved on. Or so we thought. This spring local rivers crept higher and higher, until April 28 when this year’s flooding was declared Ottawa-Gatineau’s worst on record with the water still rising. On that date the water level in Arnprior was 14 centimetres above the record set in 2017 and the water level in Britannia was 2 centimetres above the record set in 2017.

Although Ottawa received a lot of rain last month, the amount fell short of the amount received in the spring of 2017. Instead, the cause of the great flood of 2019 appears to be the snow and the cold of the winter just past. The snow came early last winter, in November, and stayed longer than usual. In fact, the Ottawa region recorded at least one centimeter of snow on the ground for 155 days straight – from November 13, 2018 until April 12, 2019, breaking a record that no one really wanted to see broken. Ottawa broke another record for the total amount of snowfall in one month – more than one metre of snow fell in January, making it the snowiest January in history. Worse, we didn’t receive an extended “January thaw” this year, so the snow kept piling up and piling up after every storm. Without any relief from the cold, sub-zero temperatures last winter, the region ended with a larger than normal snowpack that persisted much later than usual. And once the temperatures warmed up and precipitation changed to rain, all that melting water from the entire watershed had only one place to go: the Ottawa River.

By April 18, 2019 the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board was predicting major flooding along the Ottawa River, due to not just the rain in the local forecast (which was predicted to total somewhere between 30 and 80 millimetres but ended up at just over 40 millimetres over the 19th and 20th), but also heavy amounts falling throughout the watershed and in places as far away as Temiscaming, nearly 400 km away). They realized then that the rain in the forecast together with the snow melt across the watershed could cause the river to rise to levels seen in May 2017.

The water was still rising on April 25, 2019, when the mayor of Ottawa declared a state of emergency. Environment Canada had issued a special weather statement predicting another 35 millimetres of rain by the weekend, and river authorities predicted that the river could rise up to 11 centimetres above the peak levels reached in May 2017. Fortunately we received less than half the amount predicted, though this didn’t do much to alleviate the situation. From my bus window every morning I could see the water creeping higher and higher along the Sir John A. MacDonald Parkway, pouring out of its banks and covering the bike paths and lawns in places.

I went out birdwatching on April 28. Unfortunately the trails around Mud Lake, one of the best spots for viewing migrants in the spring, were closed by the NCC, as were many of its trails and bike paths along the river. I decided to visit Andrew Haydon Park to see the flooding for myself. I parked at the east end near Graham Creek, and was surprised to see that the waters of the creek extended almost all the way to the parking lot!

Graham Creek at Andrew Haydon Park, April 28, 2019

Graham Creek at Andrew Haydon Park, April 28, 2019

Normally the shrubs along the western bank of the creek are a great spot to look for migrants. There is a bit of a drop-off to the creek bed, but the water had risen all the way up to the lawn.

Graham Creek at Andrew Haydon Park, April 28, 2019

There is a higher drop off from the path that runs along the Ottawa River to the river bottom below. Normally one could stand on the rocks shown here and look down to view all the ducks and shorebirds that gather here when waters are normal or low. Instead the water has poured over the rocky barrier, covered the path that runs along next to them, and is creeping up onto the lawn. I have never seen the water this high before.

Ottawa River at Andrew Haydon Park, April 28, 2019

I was more awed by the power of the rising waters than I was by the wildlife, but even so I found some migrants to watch in the park, including a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, two Ring-necked Ducks, six Bufflehead, and two dozen Lesser Scaup.

Lesser Scaup

I also saw a muskrat in the channel connecting the eastern pond to Graham Creek; hopefully his burrow didn’t become flooded.

Muskrat at Andrew Haydon Park

By May 2, 2019, the Ottawa River Regulation and Planning Board declared that the Ottawa River had reached its peak and would rise no further – at least in the Ottawa-Gatineau region. Water levels in Pembroke were still predicted to rise as the snowpack along the river’s northern stretches was still up to one metre high in some places. In Britannia, the water peaked at 60.70 metres Thursday, 34 centimetres above the 60.44 metres it reached in 2017. Statistics Canada noted that by April 30th more than 100 kilometres of local roads were flooded or in danger of flooding, including 39 kilometres in Ottawa and 62 kilometres in Gatineau. Altogether flooding covered 42 square kilometres in Ottawa and 39 square kilometres in Gatineau.

On April 28, 2019 the Chaudière Bridge which connects Ottawa to Gatineau was closed due to high water levels. I went for a walk behind Parliament Hill on May 6, 2019 and took this photo of the bridge from the lookout (Chaudiere Bridge is the pale green bridge in the middle; the Portage Bridge is the one in the foreground):

Ottawa River – Chaudière Bridge as viewed from behind Parliament. May 6, 2019

The pathway that runs behind Parliament at the base of the hill was also still closed due to the high water levels. Although the water had reached its peak four days ago by this time, it was very slow to recede. The pathway in the image below runs along the left side of the photo, beneath the trees. The streetlights are supposed to be next to the path instead of in the river.

Ottawa River – looking west from behind Parliament. May 6, 2019

Frustration at not being able to go birding at Mud Lake was starting to set in by the following week. I had to find other places to go, and even then I discovered that even trails far away from the river were affected by flooding. Old Quarry Trail in particular is prone to flooding in low-lying areas after the snow melts, and this spring the main loop was impassible without rubber boots. I had two navigate one large lake near the bridge by walking along logs and sticks placed there by people, but was disappointed I had to turn back further along, as the trail was completely covered in water near the beaver dam. This was annoying as it was the first time I’d found plenty of warblers and migrants around and I wanted to spend some time here.

Old Quarry Trail, May 11, 2019

A second flood peak occurred around May 13, 2019, occurring after almost 30 millimetres of rain fell on May 9th and 10th. This rainfall and the opening of the reservoirs further north in the watershed brought water levels almost back to where they were on May 2nd (the reservoirs were full and could no longer hold back water). After the rain, water levels in the area rose by an average of 8 centimetres in Gatineau and 5 centimetres in the Aylmer and Britannia areas. After that peak, however, Mother Nature decided to cooperate by sending the rain clouds elsewhere. The water levels began to drop again, although it wouldn’t be until June 12, 2019 that the mayor ended the state of emergency that had been in effect since April 25th.

With two devastating floods in three years, it’s no wonder that people are beginning to wonder if this is going to become the new normal. Serious flooding along the Ottawa River is considered rare – the last time the river came close to reaching the 43 metre peak reached in 2017 was in 1974 and again in 1976 — another time the region suffered two floods in a three-year period. With climate change a fact, we can only expect more extreme weather events to occur more frequently, such as larger storms and more extreme temperatures – exactly the causes that led to this year’s flood.

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