Farmers in the Fraser Valley are likely to have their growing season extended by nearly a month, with long stretches of daily highs over 30 C as a result of climate change. In just a few decades, much of the area could look like California’s Central Valley does today, complete with rice fields, olive trees and orange groves.But while the Township of Langley ponders the agricultural benefits of 25 more frost-free days and reduced flood risk, Surrey is about to begin a $76-million public works program aimed at protecting a huge chunk of the city from coastal flooding associated with rising sea levels.Climate consequences will be baked into every decision that Surrey makes about roads, infrastructure and development on a flood plain that extends from Mud Bay all the way to Fleetwood.The point is that as the world’s climate continues to change, every city, town and village in B.C. will be living its own unique version of heaven or hell.British Columbia has already warmed by 1.4 degrees C since 1900, almost double the global average. By 2050, parts of B.C. could be 2.7 degrees hotter than the baseline recorded between 1900 and 1961, according to figures from the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium.That may not sound like much — maybe the difference between just wearing a T-shirt or putting on a jacket — but the combined effects of higher temperatures, changing rainfall and reduced snowpack are having a noticeable affect on our best known species, such as Fraser River sockeye and Western red cedar.So, municipal governments are looking into the future with varying degrees of unease.“Engineers design based on historical averages for things like rainfall and we’ve had to throw most of those away and look at a new modelled understanding of what future weather events are going to look like,” said Conor Reynolds, division manager for air quality and climate change policy at Metro Vancouver.“We know there are going to be changes. So, as we look forward 10, 20 or 40 years, we have to plan for more uncertainty with regard to temperature and severe weather and make sure our infrastructure will be resilient,” he said. “Climate is a key consideration in every one of our core services.”Metro Vancouver has amassed a considerable collection of climate projections and vulnerability studies on the region’s stormwater and sewage systems for its member municipalities. B.C. communities can also look to expertise from organizations such as ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability), the Union of B.C. Municipalities, Asset Management B.C., and the Council of Canadian Academies.The Council of Canadian Academics identified 12 major climate impacts that will be felt to a greater or lesser degree by communities across the country in the next 20 years, topped by damage to their coastal infrastructure, their built environment, and ecosystems.But the geographic diversity of British Columbia means that every community will experience their own individual climate reality. That means they must devise their own solutions.Related
TAKING INVENTORYThe Township of Langley has averaged about five days a year with highs over 30°C. But, according to an analysis by the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, this agricultural community can expect that kind of heat for 41 days a year by 2080.“There’s potential here for a couple of positives and one is an extended growing season,” said Krista Robinson, sustainability programs specialist for the Township. “I hear people saying we can be the new California, but there are climate impacts that could offset those benefits.”Warmer winters could encourage the spread of pests that are harmful to native plants. Drier summers may bring wholesale change to the mix of native plant species. Rainfall is expected to decline by about 19 per cent by 2050, which has serious implications for farmers.“That affects how quickly the groundwater recharges,” she said. “About 20,000 residents and most of our farms depend on groundwater.”You don’t really have to look decades down the road for the hyper-local effects of climate change.“A local non-profit has been moving fish by truck out of areas where there isn’t enough water for them,” said Robinson. ‘We can only assume that will get worse.”The parks department has noticed that native plants aren’t doing as well as expected. “So we might have to switch to what thrives in places like California,” she noted.The Township is in the process of creating a climate change adaptation strategy. It has plans to conduct a shade assessment and an inventory of natural assets such as forests and wetlands that have the ability to manage sudden severe weather.“We want to be able to integrate those natural systems into our built environment,” she explained. “In the past, we thought we could build our way out of any issues, so we put in all these storm drains and thought we had it covered.”Not so much.Adaptation is increasingly focused on green infrastructure and natural systems that perform services such as flood control and water treatment.“Everyone is looking to Gibsons because they have done such an amazing job,” said Robinson.
White Tower Park in Gibsons slows stormwater in a series of pools to allow natural infiltration at a fraction of the cost of pipes and water treatment.
Randy Shore /
THE NEW MATHA stroll through the leafy trails of White Tower Park gives little indication of the area’s true function: stormwater management and drinking water treatment for the Town of Gibsons. A series of ponds seamlessly engineered into the young forest slow stormwater down just enough to allow it to soak into the ground.In fact, Gibsons counts its wetlands, forests, groundwater and even the foreshore as tangible assets, just like its roads, sewers, pipes and pumps.That doesn’t sound like rocket science, but it represents a radical new approach to municipal infrastructure pioneered by Gibsons and its chief administrative officer, Emanuel Machado.The intensity of rain — when it comes — would surely overwhelm stormwater systems designed in the 1970s, said Machado. Severe rain and drought — unthinkable a decade ago — are commonplace here today.“What we built then is no longer capable of withstanding the amount of water that we receive at one time,” he said. “Plus, we were missing a critical infiltration opportunity, which connects us to our drinking water storage.”Gibsons is sitting on top of an aquifer brimming with water of world-class purity. The aquifer is recharged through the forests of nearby Mount Elphinstone, local creeks and, increasingly, the soil within the municipal boundary.“About six years ago we changed our design approach to allow far more infiltration,” he said. “In doing so, we realized that nature does a better job at a fraction of the cost, ideally in perpetuity. It makes far more sense than collecting it and pumping it away.”An intensive study of the aquifer found that its recharge rate can support at least 10,000 people, double the town’s current population. By metering water and charging for its use, Gibsons has reduced per capita water consumption by 50 per cent since 2008, ensuring the resource will not be overtaxed in the foreseeable future.Within a year, 98 per cent of the town will be drinking unfiltered, untreated water drawn from the aquifer. By contrast, other communities on the lower Sunshine Coast depend on the overtaxed Chapman Creek watershed, which has suffered critical water shortages in each of the past two summers.Natural assets don’t necessarily fit into a traditional accounting framework, so the town has found a way to assess their value and use them sustainably to deliver “municipal-like services,” said Machado.“Council took a leap of faith that we could find a way to manage these assets, specifically the ability of the earth beneath us to deal with stormwater and to deliver our drinking water,” he said. “What we stumbled upon was that we already have most of what we need to manage climate change.”The town collaborated with the David Suzuki Foundation and the Smart Prosperity Institute to develop a new accounting methodology and used Gibsons as living lab to create an “eco-asset strategy” that places nature at the heart of the town’s infrastructure.“A few years ago all we worried about were our (greenhouse gas) emissions,” he said. “True sustainability will come at the watershed level, which is one of the big realizations we’ve had.”The program earned Gibsons a 2018 Real Estate Foundation Award for land use and conservation and garnered attention from around the globe.“The phone has been ringing with municipalities all over the world — as far away as the U.K. and New Zealand — hoping to incorporate this new thinking,” said Machado.Managing natural assets requires a high degree of intergovernmental co-operation. The planning involves at least six layers of bureaucracy in multiple federal and provincial ministries, the regional district and Vancouver Coastal Health.“We are the pilot project to show that it can be done,” he said.
Emanuel Machado is the chief administrative officer for the Town of Gibsons.
Randy Shore /
FIRE AND FLOODThe City of Kelowna is also looking to the past for a solution to the most pressing threat to its future.More than 2,150 square kilometres of forest burned around the city during the record-smashing 2017 wildfire season. That the 12,000 square kilometres burned across the province in 2017 was surpassed the very next year gave comfort to no one.“In 2017, we were still dealing with a flooding emergency when the wildfires started,” said Andrew Hunsberger, urban forestry supervisor for the City of Kelowna. “The heat was melting the snow and it was flushing down in to the valley bottoms.”But the City’s attitude toward climate change shifted much earlier, after the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire that burned 260 square kilometres and led to the evacuation of 27,000 residents.“We lost hundreds of houses and the city was close to being shut down,” he said. “That’s when we started to work on forest fuel mitigation around the city.”In partnership with the province and First Nations, about 10 square kilometres of forest will be thinned to create a fuel break intended to prevent the kind of high intensity fires that plague the Interior.Forests that don’t burn periodically get unnaturally dense over time, building a fuel load that results in fires that are difficult to control.“It’s a shaded fuel break, so we are thinning the forest from 800 trees per hectare down to about 100 to 200 trees,” he explained. “We are hoping to maintain a thinly treed open grassland, which is what a lot of these slopes used to look like in the Okanagan.”Mature Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines will be left in place to provide shade and keep the grass from drying out so quickly. When fires do break out, the grass burns away quickly and often harmlessly.“Under those conditions you would see low-intensity fires every five to 30 years that would just burn off the grass and leave the trees alive,” said Hunsberger.Adding another old-time layer to to its forest management strategy, Kelowna is planning to bring in cattle to graze a portion of the fuel break on City land in a new pilot project set to begin next spring.“So, it’s fuel management, but with animals,” he said. “The other option is to do prescribed burns, but those aren’t that popular or simple when there are people living close by.”If the pilot goes well, the program could be expanded to provide rangeland to other ranchers, with cattle providing a service to the community in exchange for a meal.The $1.6-million project — officially the Southeast Kelowna Landscape Level Wildfire Fuel Break — was funded by the Forest Enhancement Society of B.C., but that money will go a long way.A thinning operation of this kind typically costs $6,000 to $20,000 a hectare, but Kelowna is getting the job done for just $2,000 a hectare by selling off the “merchantable” timber and grinding up the rest for an electric cogeneration plant.Fewer damaging fires will come as good news to Rod MacLean, manager of utilities planning for Kelowna. During periods of heavy precipitation, trees and debris flow toward Okanagan Lake causing all kinds of havoc in creeks and culverts.“We need to take a much more broad holistic approach to the region with a lot more work outside the city boundary,” he said. “We’ve redone our hydrology with our partners on the Okanagan Basin Water Board. We are looking again at our weather patterns.”
Kelowna’s Marshall Street after flood waters receded in 2017.
GARY NYLANDER/The Daily Courier /
The City is undertaking a substantial do-over in its infrastructure planning process in light of new climate projections, including revised flood mapping and risk assessments for high value assets.“The first step is to accept that it’s happening,” he said. “Get the data and demonstrate that the one in 200 year storm is now a 100 year storm or a one in 50 years.”Areas in need of immediate protection include Mill Creek, the airport and high-density commercial and industrial areas right through the downtown. Flooding at Mill Creek over the past two years has caused millions of dollars in damage to homes, parks and roads.“We are looking at shore protection and raising our major infrastructure so it does not get inundated,” said MacLean.The federal government earlier this year provided $22 million to Kelowna’s $55-million flood control program, which could include a reservoir outside the city to manage spring run-off.Related
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