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A major investment from the federal government has created pier reconstruction work that’s been ongoing for more than two-and-a-half years in St. Catharines. A marina and yacht club at the piers are benefiting from the rehabilitation, which has also contributed to the development of a new condominium project. Photo credit: Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

By David Nesseth

With plenty of water infrastructure and erosion protection work still to be done around the eight-state, two-province Great Lakes and St. Lawrence region, there’s no better time for that work to help kick-start the economy than in the midst of a pandemic, says a group of municipal leaders calling on the U.S. and Canadian governments for new stimulus funding.

On the heels of record-high unemployment levels due to COVID-19, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative says that nearly 20 jobs could be created per million dollars spent on infrastructure. Their new ask of the Canadian government is $6.3 billion for Canadian water infrastructure, which could equate to the creation of some 124,110 jobs. In terms of erosion mitigation, they estimate that an injection of $700 million could stimulate the creation of 27,790 jobs at a rate of nearly 40 jobs created per million spent.

Of particular focus for the more than 100 mayors in the Great Lakes region is funding for projects that safeguard drinking water and modernize clean water infrastructure, as well as projects that respond to coastal erosion and impacts from extreme weather events. About 70 projects have already been identified in Canada alone, and a project map and breakdown is in the works.

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“What we’re faced with is an inability for municipalities to be able to finance and afford these projects,” Walter Sendzik, vice chair of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, and mayor of St. Catharines, Ontario, told Environmental Science & Engineering Magazine. “It’ll be a net impact loss on our property tax owners, but also to a greater extent, an impact on the resiliency of our community to fight climate change.”

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Walter Sendzik, vice chair of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, and mayor of St. Catharines, Ontario.

One element of the new stimulus proposal to the Canadian government is to waive matching fund requirements for projects in order to streamline progress. If a project is already on the books, it currently would be ineligible for the federal government to match those dollars. The initiative’s efforts want to see those barriers removed, particularly because nearly one-third of Canadian and U.S. economic activity is centered in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence region, and accelerating recovery of the areas will fuel the larger Canadian economic recovery.

Most countries are seeing a 10% drop in GDP, and experts estimate it could take more than two years for most countries to return to pre-pandemic economic levels.

In St. Catharines, Sendzik said the city has seen the devastating impacts of climate change, as well as the positive ripple effects in the economy when the city has tackled projects along its waters. In 2019, St. Catharines had a significant flash flood that brought more rain in 45 minutes than the city has ever had on record. It flooded some 500 basements and is exactly the sort of “new normal” that municipalities want to build protections against in the call for new stimulus funding.

“One of the factors that created the backup of the water system was that because our water levels were so high in Lake Ontario, our [stormwater] outtake system was actually in the water. When water was coming from our system at high velocity, it pretty much ran into water,” explained Sendzik.

Reinvesting in existing infrastructure above and below ground, creating new infrastructure, as well as investing in shoreline protections has been beneficial for the city of 136,000 that sits on Lake Ontario, where high water levels have been stripping St. Catharines’ beaches of their natural ecology, said Sendzik.

With the work that’s been done in recent years, there has been a steady mix of short-term and long-term employment. For example, a set of piers on the shore called the Port Dalhousie Piers had fallen into disrepair. A major investment from the federal government has created pier reconstruction work that’s been ongoing for more than two-and-a-half years. A marina and yacht club at the piers are benefiting from the rehabilitation, which has also contributed to the development of a new condominium project.

“The economic spinoff will last for generations,” said Sendzik.

But the progress comes at a cost. And like most municipalities in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence region, there is much more work to be done, and much more resilience to embed as 100-year-flood risks become closer to a five-year occurrence.

Over the last two years alone, St. Catharines has spent some $7 million addressing high water levels. In 2020, they have so far earmarked $2 million for shoreline protection work. As much as $20 million in shoreline erosion work still looms on the horizon. On the water infrastructure side, the regional government recently approved a $20-million retrofit of a water treatment plant.

“Everyone wants things like new arenas and community centres, which are beneficial, but the reality is that the core of our needs is clean drinking water, sanitary waste and water management, and sewer systems,” said Sendzik. “At the essence of any thriving community is going to be clean water, both at the tap and what we manage. And, if we’re not paying attention to those as communities then our ability to be sustainable and resilient moving forward is going to be very much compromised.”

David Nesseth is a writer for ES&E Magazine.

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