Judging from the severe flooding we experienced this spring and in 2017, it appears that a large swath of the region’s pathways could become the first public infrastructure casualty of climate change in the Ottawa-Gatineau area. The irony in all this is that these pathways encourage cycling, something which could play a major role in preventing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The problem is that the pathways along the region’s rivers are built lower than nearby roads or other public infrastructure. Even under normal conditions, key sections of these pathways experience a bit of flooding for a week or two almost every spring. Local cyclists have become adept at circumventing these areas, and seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that these major arteries for cycling are subject to this type of flooding every year.
Unfortunately, the situation becomes much more serious with severe flooding brought about by climate change. The floods of 2017 and 2019 meant that important parts of the pathways were under 2 to 3 feet of water for several weeks at a time. The result of this flooding, and related issues, was that critical sections of the pathways were impassable for close to two months.
The prolonged closure of these paths is extremely disruptive for people who want to get around on bicycles. (Think of the chaos that would ensue if the Queensway was completely closed for two months.) It also undermines efforts to promote cycling, including “ Bike to Work Month“, which takes place in May, when flooding is usually at its worst.
The disruption caused by the actual flooding is only part of the problem. Far more serious is the damage resulting from sinkholes and shoreline erosion, and the closures of the pathway to make the necessary repairs.
A vital section of the Voyageurs Pathway between the Portage Bridge and the Alexandra Bridge was closed for two summers to repair damage caused by the 2017 flood. A section of the Ottawa River Pathway was closed for nearly three months this year to repair damage from the 2017 flood. In addition to the ongoing debacle behind the Parliament Buildings, dozens and dozens of smaller patch-up jobs were required to fix other spots along the pathways near the river.
Repairs stemming from the 2017 flood hadn’t even been completed when the area was hit by the record breaking flood of this spring. A lot of the previous work will need some shoring up, but there are now dozens and dozens of new areas where the pathways have started to collapse and will need some serious fixing-up. We can only imagine all the work the pathways are going to need the next time we are hit by severe flooding, whether it be next year, or 5 or 6 years from now.
In the meantime, governments should recognize that these pathways are at ground-zero when it comes to public infrastructure being threaten by climate change. Instead of making repairs after the fact, the government should implement preventive measures to protect the pathways from damage and keep them open. Governments also have to recognize that pathways are essential transportation arteries in the region, and that they will become all the more important if we are to succeed in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by getting more people to use their bikes.
How governments respond to the challenge of protecting these pathways could indicate how well prepared they are to deal with climate change in general, and whether they are ready to move ahead with the necessary climate adaptation strategies.