Progress: Telemedicine for Coastal Engineering, Possibly?

Friends, I’m happy to report a success: A letter of opinion, written by a Coastal Engineer, based only on property-owner-submitted photo and video evidence, was sufficient to get a Lower Trent Conservation Authority flood mitigation work permit! The cost was 10% to 20% of a Coastal Engineering Study/Design. By cooperating with neighbouring properties, we were able to cut that cost in half!

To be clear, there are a number of limitations to this approach. These are discussed later in this report. The letter of opinion is not about providing a design for flood mitigation work. It won’t apply in many cases where design and study will absolutely be needed. But one thing is clear: before incurring the cost of a Coastal Engineering report/design project, the first step should be to request a letter of opinion.

At our last meeting on March 15th, 2020, our group decided to put on hold, our advocacy work to eliminate red tape and delays in getting shoreline work permits. Earlier, we had submitted a Board motion to the Lower Trent Conservation Authority (LTRCA), to establish a flood mitigation expert team to provide planning guidance that would assist shoreline property owners to safely streamline the input required for work permit applications.

The Board response was shockingly mute and anemic, particularly since the Pandemic was already upon us and would certainly drastically impair flood emergency response.

Our advocacy work had hit a brick wall. Our local Conservation Authorities and the municipalities they support were clearly not able to act on our requests quickly enough to make a difference for Spring 2020. This speaks volumes about the extreme difficulty these organizations and their capable leadership face when attempting to make meaningful change.

With the window for pre-emptive flood mitigation work quickly shrinking, we advised our members to approach their Conservation Authorities for emergency expedited permitting requests as soon as possible. We did so, even though the Conservation Authorities had consistently refused to exercise their discretionary powers to issue permits on an emergency basis at any time prior to the actual onset of a flood emergency-proper. In normal times this would be more understandable, but with the confluence of the impending flood emergency and the pandemic emergency, it totally beggared comprehension.

The next morning, I asked LTRCA to make an emergency, expedited amendment to my existing permit at the Timber House Resort.

The existing permit allowed only 30 cubic metres of fill to be placed on the shoreline, about a tenth of what’s needed to mitigate the shoreline erosion occurring there. The permit had been issued in November 2019. At the time, LTRCA had told me, this was the absolute maximum they would allow without a Coastal Engineering study, even though they acknowledged the inadequacy of the fill limit.

So, I asked for an amendment to allow sufficient fill to be placed to address the approximately 500 feet of shoreline we have. I indicated this would be approximately 10 truckloads. The request was denied within an hour of its’ submission.

I was told, again, “The amount of stone that you are requesting to place on your shoreline would trigger the requirement for a coastal engineer review / design, as per our earlier discussions.” As far as LTRCA was concerned, they weren’t prepared to treat my request to have my permit revision application treated as an emergency, unless the emergency had already happened. As they said, “Lower Trent Conservation was only issuing ‘Emergency’ permits last summer during the extremely high water levels to prevent significant active ongoing erosion as a result of the high water levels.” They went on to say: “If you are concerned about LTC’s complete application requirements, you may request an administrative review of the policies by our CAO and/or Board of Directors.”

So that’s what I did. Here’s what I said: “I’m requesting a review of the policy on an emergency basis, given we have a pandemic occurring. This is why we don’t have time to organize coastal engineering studies or coordinated applications. I’m a lay person, but I cannot understand how putting rock on dry land behind the existing rock break-wall can have any bearing on a groyne (a rock pier jutting out into the lake) or any other feature in the water. How soon can we do this review immediately given the situation? I appreciate any assistance you can offer to have your criteria for emergency permits adjusted to take account of the extremely elevated risk given the confluence of the impending high water and the effect the pandemic will already have on the availability of resources to get the physical work done after the engineering work done.

The reply came quickly: “The proposed work is not classified as an emergency as your property, home, septic or other structures are not currently at risk.”

Two days later, deeply frustrated, I walked the shoreline, taking pictures and making videos. If the LTRCA wouldn’t help me, I decided to do what we had been fruitlessly advocating for: I would ask a Coastal Engineer to provide ‘planning input’ by commenting on the situation without visiting the site and without doing any design work. Instead, I would be the eyes and ears for the engineer and provide photos and video information as needed by the engineer.

One of the 20 Pictures and 5 Videos I Made in About 2 Hours

Fortunately, our group had been working with two outstanding engineering firms, Wood PLC and W.F. Baird & Associates Coastal Engineers Ltd. Together they had generously (as unfunded public service) encouraged and assisted us to engage with local Conservation Authorities to make changes to remove red tape and help expedite Shoreline Work permit approvals. This is what had led to our ‘Eliminate the Red Tape’ petition and, ultimately, to the LTRCA Board motion that had fizzled so completely.

Of the two firms, Baird was the closest and was happy to help. They proposed writing a letter of opinion to supply comments on the merits (or not) of mitigating shoreline erosion risk by allowing an elevated material limit for the already-issued permit. They would not visit. Instead, they would write the letter of opinion based on satellite imagery (Google Earth), as well as onshore and offshore photographs and videos I would provide. They were clear with me: A letter of opinion was not what the Conservation Authority demanded. There was every chance it would not be accepted.

My Shoreline Video Camera Mounted on an old 15 Foot Sailboard Mast

Baird wrote the letter in a few days after I sent the pictures and videos. I worked with two adjacent property owners to share the costs. Baird said one of the properties was too complex to address in the letter. So, Baird’s letter ultimately addressed the Timber House Resort property and only one of the two adjacent properties. In conversation with the engineer, and as he indicated in the letter, he felt there was really no downside to doing the mitigation work I had proposed, and no need for design since the work was simply to prevent erosion behind a functioning revetment (wall).

In our case, the letter of opinion stated: “The fact that the stone (in our shoreline break-wall) has remained mostly stable for about 30 years suggests that we would expect stability to continue in the immediate future (assuming conditions are not exceptionally worse than past events) … These works involve regrading the region behind the revetment and filling with a riprap material, similar to what was completed in the past few years. The works are all above water and should have little environmental impact, and should lessen future erosion and improve the stability of the existing revetment.’

I sent the letter of opinion on to the LTRCA.

The next day, the LTRCA accepted the Baird letter of opinion as written. LTRCA agreed to issue an elevated material limit permit for shoreline flood mitigation work at Timber House Resort and the property next door, without submission of a costly Coastal Engineering study and design, and, without a costly site visit.

The letter of opinion approach won’t work in every case. There are many situations where Coastal Engineering analysis and design is absolutely necessary. In this case, it was based on the notion of ‘proposed repairs/mitigation of a type that had already been proven effective, applied to an existing shoreline protection that has functioned over a number of years’. Another limitation is their should be little to no impact on the nearshore area (no blocking sediment, causing wave reflections, etc.). There are likely many other scenarios where equally simple common sense input from a qualified engineer should be more than sufficient.

The letter of opinion cost is typically around 10% to 20% of the cost of a Coastal Engineering Study/Design. In our case, this was shared between two property owners, cutting each owner’s cost in half.

It was considerably less expensive than a Coastal Engineering Study and Design. Equally importantly, it took a very small amount of time to complete. Clearly we should encourage other property owners to consider this same approach of getting a letter of opinion from a Coastal Engineer. They should also consider joining together to minimize costs by utilizing the letter to make concurrent permit applications. The approach will be most effective for simple situations, of which there are many. This could be very helpful for shoreline property owners in general, by providing an expedited path for some, while preserving more scarce engineering resources for cases where design work and broader effort is most needed.

Our next advocacy step is to lobby the Province to direct all Conservation Authorities to amend their policies to encourage a letter of opinion as a first step for any work that currently requires a Coastal Engineering study and design.

Through our group’s work, we were able to draw the attention of almost 800 concerned citizens to this issue, and ultimately, with Wood and Baird’s help, we may have set a precedent for what I describe as telemedicine for Coastal Engineering. Much like COVID has made possible connecting electronically with a doctor or a nurse practitioner to get a prescription and simple tests done remotely, this is remote engineering expertise (the expert flood mitigation team in our motion) delivered electronically.

Thank you W.F. Baird & Associates Coastal Engineers Ltd. and Wood PLC, for your support and help. It wouldn’t have been possible without you. This is the ideal of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Sons of Martha’ Iron Ring Ceremony: Socially responsible engineering. A very timely contribution indeed, given the COVID crisis. Thank you.