‘Water apocalypse’ demands return to nature for flood, drought resilience: experts

'Water apocalypse' demands return to nature for flood, drought resilience: experts
A view of a wetland restoration project in the Yaqan Nukiy, also known as the Lower Kootenay Band First Nation, is seen near Creston, B.C., in an undated handout photo. The project involves the restoration of nearly 520 hectares of wetlands that were disconnected from the surrounding river system in the 1960s by a series of ditches, dikes, pumps and drains.

Norm Allard knows he may never see the full impacts of his efforts to restore wetlands and floodplains in southeastern British Columbia, but he takes a “generational view” of the work that exemplifies a key part of climate resiliency.

“We’re not doing this just for ourselves in our lifetime. It’s a longer view of looking forward,” said Allard, the community planner for Yaqan Nukiy, or the Lower Kootenay Band, nestled between the Goat and Kootenay rivers near Creston, B.C.

“It may be our grandkids that benefit from it,” he said of the restoration of nearly 520 hectares of wetlands that was disconnected from the surrounding river system in the 1960s by a series of ditches, dikes, pumps and drains.

There are early signs of success.

Allard said much of that infrastructure has been removed since the project began in 2017, reopening natural connections between the wetland and nearby rivers.

Today, areas that had been drying up by early August are “rehydrated” enough to hold water all year, effectively boosting resilience to flooding and drought as the area experiences “wetter wets and drier dries” with climate change, he said.

“Wetlands and floodplains are like a huge sponge. They’ll soak (the water) up and then they’ll release everything back into the system over time,” Allard said.

The consequences of having either too little or too much water at once have been devastating for communities throughout B.C. in the last several years.

The Yaqan Nukiy project is an example of a nature-based approach to adapt as drought, flooding and wildfires threaten public safety, critical infrastructure, agriculture, tourism, and the survival of wild salmon populations in B.C.

Oliver Brandes leads the research group POLIS Water Sustainability Project based at the University of Victoria’s centre for global studies, and said the most important solution is keeping natural infrastructure healthy.

“We have to get the landscape working as it used to, and we also need to make sure we’re reducing the inappropriate development that’s going to impact (water), because we’re going to have to pay for it down the road,” said Brandes.

“Stop paving over groundwater recharge areas,” he added. “That’s the best kind of storage you have. It’s natural, it’s free. It’s worked … since time immemorial.”

The most costly climate-related disaster in B.C.’s history struck in November 2021, when atmospheric rivers of rain spurred landslides that killed five people. Widespread flooding swamped homes and farmland and damaged key road and rail connections between southwestern B.C. and the rest of Canada.

The flooding followed an extreme heat wave that killed more than 600 people in B.C., and the province issued drought bulletins throughout that summer.

The dry conditions have deepened since then. Historically low water flows killed hundreds of salmon in the Cowichan River last summer, while the province issued several orders restricting irrigation of forage crops, and ranchers in the Interior resorted to selling livestock as they grappled with a shortage of feed.

At a news conference in September, B.C.’s minister of emergency management, Bowinn Ma, called the drought a “sleeping giant of a natural disaster.”

At the time, about 80 per cent of B.C. was ranked at either level four or five drought, the two highest classifications on the scale, hampering the battle against wildfires that scorched more than 28,000 square kilometres of land last season.

The drought map shows a large swath of northeastern B.C. is still ranked at level five, while much of the central Interior is at level three or four.

Brandes describes wildfires, floods, drought and contamination as “the four horsemen of the water apocalypse.” The linkages between them are clear after more than a century of industrial and urban development in the province, he said.

“You take away some of the cover like trees, you take away the riparian areas, you pave areas, you make it more susceptible,” he said, referring to floods and drought.

Add wildfire to the mix and problems with drinking water follow, he said.

Nathan Cullen, who leads the province’s fledgling Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, said climate change is ushering B.C. into a “new reality.”

In the past, droughts in B.C. were usually localized and short-term, he said.

“Now, they’re across entire landscapes, if not the whole province, and last a lot longer,” the minister said, acknowledging the province is “playing catch up.”

Cullen said B.C.’s efforts to “modernize” land-use planning are aimed at incorporating all values, including biodiversity and ecosystem health.

“When we talk about things like, we’re doing all this work at the bottom of the watershed, where there are practices happening at the top of the watershed that are undermining our efforts to build resiliency … we can’t have that,” he said.

“Historically, in B.C., I would argue that if there was anything like land-use planning, it was almost by default forestry planning, which was heavily weighted toward maximizing timber supply as a sort of dominant value,” Cullen said in an interview.

The B.C. government is working to develop a watershed security strategy with an expected release sometime next year. An intentions paper shows priority areas include building local capacity and addressing gaps in provincial data on watersheds and water use, as well as balancing water supply and demand, in part by “using the full suite” of tools under the Water Sustainability Act, it says.

The paper also outlines plans to boost Indigenous leadership in watershed governance and restoration and identifies wild salmon recovery as a key value.

“That’s exactly what we’re envisioning, this kind of world where all these pieces are in play,” Brandes said of an early look at the province’s strategy.

“But we’ve been waiting for (longer than) the act,” he added. “Ten years, there’s been a number of plans, provincial strategies on paper, but haven’t yet been executed.”

Brandes said the B.C. government has been slow to use tools established by the Water Sustainability Act, which came into force in 2016.

“The idea that we have one water sustainability plan underway in the province is insufficient after seven years. We should have five to 10 already underway.”

Shifting to proactive drought management requires provincial co-ordination and support for capacity building at the local and regional levels, Brandes said.

“Every region, every local government, every First Nation, will need their own drought response plan. It’s unique to their context,” he said.

The B.C. government launched a $100 million fund for projects supporting watershed security as it released the intentions paper last March.

The fund builds on the province’s $27-million Healthy Watersheds Initiative, through which the Yaqan Nukiy restoration project has received funding.

As the climate changes, Allard said his community is seeing cold spring seasons that warm up rapidly, leading to “massive melt-offs” followed by prolonged dry periods.

“We’re seeing all of that water come down within a week and then disappear just as fast,” Allard said in an interview. “Then we don’t have the supplemental rains throughout the summer that use to occur to help replenish these areas.”

Allard likened reopening the floodplain to “popping holes in a garden hose.”

The restoration work is taking pressure off the river system, reducing the risks of flooding and erosion while helping the landscape stay hydrated over the summer.

“It’s still a managed system. The main rivers in the area are controlled by dikes for the agricultural lands and hydro dams as well,” Allard noted.

“So, in reopening these (wetlands), we’ll never get the historical amounts of water back. But we’re mimicking that yearly fluctuation.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2023.

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