Overland Flood Risk - From Flood Plains to Foundation Drains

From foundation drain to floodplain there is a continuum of drainage features that affect flood risks and damages in urban areas - these are micro lot level factors and macro neighbourhood factors.
River flood risks are defined by floodplain maps (called
engineered floodplains) because of the detailed hydrologic
analysis used to define flood flows and river and bridge
surveys used to define river and valley hydraulics to define
precise flood levels. Hazards in these zones are closely
regulated, new development is not permitted, and
 redevelopment is subject to special policies if allowed.

Yes, some property reference points could identify a few flood risk factors to address, but overland flooding risk is not apparent at the property scale - that is if we agree overland flooding is not a result of poor lot grading or obvious rain entry points.  Unlike other risks like fire hazards, the structure or property does not define most of the risk when if comes to flooding. It will be interesting to see what methods Aviva has adopted for defining risk levels and overland flood endorsement premiums.

Aviva is excluding high risk properties (about 5% of properties) considering flood plain maps that identify river (and sometimes lake) flooding hazards. Micro-scale factors like the property's foundation drain and service lateral condition can affect almost any property, but issues with those do not cause overland / surface water flooding.

Overland flow areas in an urban setting.  Areas beyond blue
regulated floodplains may be several hundred hectares in size.
I'd suggest the most sensitive overland flooding occurs upstream of large floodplain-mapped valleys and up onto urbanized 'table land' where the sewer drainage system and overland drainage system are not designed to accommodate runoff from major rainfall events.  Usually this would be in catchments draining a 125 hectare or smaller area in Ontario, lying beyond the regulated flood zones above where Aviva insurance would not be available. In these areas, neither the capacity of the storm sewer system, nor the adequacy of the overland drainage system (ideally on roadways and drainage easements) is apparent at the individual property scale.

The macro-scale, overland system is only apparent from runoff accumulation and concentration from 10's of hectares to even a couple hundred hectares of table land runoff that accumulates downstream. That is, a broad neighbourhood-scale macro factor representing many hundreds upstream of properties. The map of overland flow drainage areas (red text in yellow highlight) shows the continuum of drainage areas extending beyond regulated floodplains that flow into to smaller surface features that run through the urban lot fabric.

Engineered floodplain limits are determined through
extensive engineering analysis of the valley system.  More
local overland flow limits may be determined through a
local flood remediation study that analyzes the 'major system'
of road drainage as if it is a river valley. That can be
 expensive. Alternatively the risk of being close to the
overland flow path can be estimated by defining buffer
distances from small and large runoff area flow paths.
The key overland flood risk factor is whether the property is on the overland flow path where the drainage accumulates. Maybe a property is at a sag in a road where runoff could spill toward the property (i.e., it's vulnerable to overland flooding) but if there is no large upstream area contributing overland runoff toward the property, its not exposed to meaningful risk. But with a large overland drainage area from the neighbourhood flowing into the sag there is a risk to the property.  And in that case, disconnected downspouts won't help reduce risk - downspouts drain a couple hundred square meters of rooftop, while large overland catchments can be a couple hundred hectares (meaning 10,000 times greater than the local roof area)
GIS Tools can identify major sags, or depressions,
 (called sinks) in the landscape that can indicate or amplify
overland flood risk.


Neighbourhood scale risks factors for overland flooding can be assessed with some minor effort (relative to detailed pipe-by-pipe sewer and street-by-street hydraulic simulation models that is) by just considering topography from readily available elevations models and by applying core GIS hydrology tools.

The image to the left on 'major sags' is an example showing overland flooding risks including dwellings within poorly-drained sags.  In this case it includes dwellings upstream of a railway embankment that can impede and 'back up' flows during large events.

Ranked property risk considering proximity to overland flow
path, drainage area, and major sags in topography
 (i.e., drainage-challenged during extreme runoff events).
The risk to dwellings and property within close proximity to overland flow paths can be ranked. For example a building within 3 m of a 10 hectare area runoff flow path, or 15 m from 100 hectare area flow path, would be at relatively low risk. Alternatively a dwellings within  3 m of a 100 ha flow path would be at a high risk.  A building within both a flow path and in a sag would be at the highest risk. Remember, these are estimates and are qualitative.  Nonetheless, experience shows that areas identified through these heuristic methods have be subject to overland flooding during extreme rainfall events.

The issue with overland flood insurance (urban, table-land type flooding) is that risks are concentrated with a small portion of downstream properties for whom risk-based premiums could be unaffordable, or for whom coverage would not be available.  The majority of upstream properties would not likely ever experience overland flooding nor add coverage for it. So overland flood damages are not like wind damage (path of wind can be anywhere whereas path of water is always the lowest elevations).

At a property scale, a property with poor lot grading and a reverse slope driveway may be at high risk regardless of proximity to overland flow paths or major sags in topography. Such a property would benefit from having an overland flood endorsement in its water protection insurance. Ideally homeowners in this situation can take action to mitigate risks by improving grading, installing barriers to flow from the reverse drive, keeping grates clear of debris and perhaps installing a backflow valve on the driveway drain.  Beyond these exceptions, anyone with foundation drains that could clog or a service lateral that could become root infested is at risk of flooding - but that would not be overland flooding, but rather back-up from the floor drain or seepage from the foundation wall and cracks (a different endorsement all together).

Check out new analysis of table land flood risks and insight into correlations with basement flooding / sewer back-up incidents : overland flow flood risk factors

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