WEA Flood Threats 20120628

Restoring salmon habitat could help B.C.’s flood problems

Decisions to restrict the mighty Fraser River through extensive diking have had dire consequences for fish. Now B.C. has an opportunity to 'build back better' — but will it?

This story is part of Going with the Flow, a series that dives into how restoring nature can help with B.C.’s flood problems — and what’s stopping us from doing it.

For many British Columbians the memories of November 2021 are still fresh. The torrential rains. The rushing rivers. The water that surged through flood defences. 

Certain moments stand out. The Fraser Valley farmers who used Sea-Doos and boats to lead dairy cows to safety through chest-high waters. The thousands of people ordered out of Merritt when the flood overtook the city’s sewage treatment plant. And the hundreds of motorists who found themselves trapped between landslides as soggy hillsides gave way. 

By the time the water receded, it was the costliest natural disaster in B.C. history. But it wasn’t entirely natural. A study by 14 scientists determined that human-caused climate change made the extreme rains significantly more likely. The impact, meanwhile, was made worse by a series of decisions dating back centuries that saw floodplains transformed into cities and farmland.

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Those decisions — to build in floodplains and restrict the mighty Fraser River through extensive diking — also had dire consequences for salmon. Each new barrier cut off the species’ access to vital spawning and rearing habitat. As B.C. works to rebuild, First Nations leaders, environmental advocates and experts say this is a chance to do things differently — better — to make choices that are good for people, as well as for salmon and ecosystems as a whole. 

But they fear funding restrictions and an appetite for immediate action could leave B.C. on the same broken course it’s been on for decades, adding further strain to already suffering salmon populations.

Salmon on the brink in part due to diking of Fraser River 

B.C. has taken a “big engineering” approach to reducing flood risk for the last six or seven decades, Tamsin Lyle, the principle of Ebbwater Consulting and a flood management expert, told The Narwhal. The idea was to separate water from the buildings people lived, worked and played in using dikes, she explained.

After a destructive flood in 1948, the federal government sent engineers from Ontario out west. Their mandate, Lyle said, was “to restore the public faith in the diking system.” That’s when B.C.’s commitment to dikes was really “cemented” in place, she said. 

B.C. now relies on more than 1,100 kilometres of dikes — many poorly maintained — as well as a series of flood gates and pump stations to protect low-lying communities from high water. Experts have warned for years that the province’s flood defences are deficient.

At the same time, the diking system has had unintended consequences. Today, salmon have access to just 15 per cent of the estimated floodplain habitat available historically in the Lower Fraser, according to a study published in the journal Ecosphere in July 2021. More than 1,200 barriers also block access to about 64 per cent of the stream length that salmon could, at one time, use for spawning and rearing, the researchers found.

Chum fry hiding in marginal grass
Dikes and flood control infrastructure have cut salmon, such as these chum fry, off from valuable rearing habitat along the Fraser River. Photo: Eiko Jones / Watershed Watch Salmon Society

“Historically, every one of those old creeks and tributary rivers coming into the Fraser would have had local runs of sockeye, or Chinook or Chum,” said Tyrone McNeil, chair of the Emergency Planning Secretariat, which supports Coast Salish First Nations on the mainland to develop a coordinated flood mitigation strategy.

For young salmon, access to good floodplain habitat, where they can feed and grow, can make a crucial difference in their ability to survive as they head out to sea. 

“This extraordinary loss of floodplain rearing habitat is likely having a significant impact,” Tara Martin, a professor of conservation decision science at the University of British Columbia, wrote in an email to The Narwhal. She noted that all of the coho and Chinook salmon populations that have been assessed in the Lower Fraser are considered threatened.

“If we continue to erode the last remaining portions of floodplain and stream habitat in the Lower Fraser in an effort to adapt to increased flood risk, we will lose wild salmon in the Fraser,” Martin warned.

A generational opportunity to ‘build back better’

In the wake of last year’s damaging floods, there is a growing chorus calling for a major rethink of the way B.C. manages flood risk.

In July, a coalition of scientists, engineers, First Nations and local government representatives, environmental advocates and many others came together to discuss regional flood recovery and the need to “build back better,” as the Agassiz-Harrison Observer reported at the time. This week, local government leaders, who are meeting in Whistler, B.C., at the annual Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention, will consider several flood-related issues. Among them is a resolution put forward by the City of Port Moody, calling for “flood recovery that creates safe communities and healthy, resilient ecosystems.”

A map showing the extend of historical salmon habitat in the lower Fraser River, based on survey work conducted in 1859 to 1890. Map: Finn et al. / Ecosphere

But funding remains a major stumbling block. A lot of the money the province and federal government allocated to immediate flood recovery is meant to help communities build back flood infrastructure that was lost or damaged the way it was before the flood, but not to improve it, said Lina Azeez, the habitat program manager for the conservation group Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

McNeil called the policy “archaic” and “nonsensical.”

“If you’ve got a four-foot culvert that’s washed out from the rain event, all you can do is put that four-foot culvert back in, you can’t put in a five-foot culvert or a six-foot culvert unless you pay for it out of your pocket,” he said.

In July, the federal government said it would provide B.C. with $870 million to support recovery from the major flooding and landslides last winter through a disaster financial assistance arrangement. Annie Cullinan, a spokesperson for federal Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair, told The Narwhal in a statement that additional funding would be announced “in due course.”

That funding is delivered through the provincial government, which decides where to allocate the money and what it can be used for, Cullinan said. 

“We recognize that there are ways this program can be improved to better serve Canadians and reduce the risks they experience by building greater resiliency,” she said. Earlier this year an advisory panel was asked for recommendations to improve disaster relief financing, Cullinan noted. The government expects their report by the end of the year.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Emergency Management BC said the province will be making changes to the disaster financial assistance program as it modernizes its emergency management legislation. Under the current disaster financial assistance program flood protection structures must be upgraded if the previous structures did not meet existing standards, the statement said. Communities looking to “build back better” should reach out to the department’s community recovery team for more information about whether the province can provide support, it said.

The spokesperson also noted the province is working to develop a provincial flood strategy, which is set for release next year, as well as a flood resilience plan to be published in 2025. Alongside investments in floodplain mapping, the province has also invested $30 million this year to restore watersheds to reduce the impacts of flooding, building on $27 million invested last year, the statement noted. In August, a new green infrastructure adaptation, resilience and disaster mitigation program was announced with $81.1 million in funding for flood mitigation and other projects to adapt to climate change.

Those are, however, comparatively small investments relative to the hundreds of millions of dollars available now in federal disaster assistance funding to rebuild damaged flood control infrastructure.

Ultimately, McNeil said new funding mechanisms and a coordinated, regional approach to flood management are needed. The Emergency Planning Secretariat has created a regional action plan for the 31 mainland Coast Salish First Nations, McNeil said. The plan isn’t public just yet but McNeil said there will be opportunities for local and regional governments to get on board. 

“Ideally, we’d have a local plan, a local strategy that’s endorsed by First Nations and local governments,” he said.

Giving Fraser River room to ‘breathe’ would restore salmon habitat, lower flood risk

For juvenile salmon, floodplains are critically important habitat. They offer access to nutritious food, places to hide from predators and respite from fast-moving rivers like the Fraser during flooding from heavy rains or snow melt. Safe in the little channels of slow-moving water, young salmon have a chance to “grow bigger and stronger” before continuing their migration out to sea, Azeez said. “If they don’t have access to these habitats, unfortunately, they get flushed out into the ocean much quicker,” she said, decreasing their chance of survival.

A juvenile coho salmon hides in grass
For juvenile salmon, floodplains and small streams offer places to hide from predators, as well as ample food to help them grow strong before they migrate out to sea. Photo: Gillian Flaccus / Associated Press

Diking has already severely restricted the Fraser River’s ability to expand during the spring when melting snow and rain cause the river to swell. 

“When we allow the river to breathe during freshet it creates or recreates habitat that’s important to all of us,” McNeil said. It also lessens the risk to homes, farmland and other infrastructure downstream.

“Every kilometre opened up to allow for that breath makes a big difference,” he said, whether it’s setting dikes further back from the riverbank or reopening the creeks and sloughs that have been cut off from the Fraser for too long.

Several years ago Watershed Watch Salmon Society identified 156 flood control structures, such as gates and pump stations, that block access to rearing and spawning habitat or — in the case of pump stations — actually grind up fish when they’re operating. 

“We build our (flood control) structures for the extreme,” Azeez said. “But those extremes, although they might be getting more and more frequent, are not an everyday occurrence, they might happen once a year, and the rest of the year salmon have a hard time getting into these habitats.”

Watershed Watch has been pushing for communities to upgrade these structures to let salmon back into these habitats. 

Azeez pointed to a recent success story at the Agassiz Slough, where a small culvert was replaced with a large flood gate just before the November floods. For most of the year that gate can remain open, she said, allowing both salmon and nutrients to flow freely. During high flows, the gate can be closed, protecting the community behind it from a possible flood.

But there’s still a lot more work to be done: about 150 of those 156 structures Watershed Watch identified still need to be upgraded, Azeez said.

Today’s decisions will have impacts for decades

Whether those remaining flood gates, culverts and pump stations get upgraded, whether communities build new or bigger dikes or whether they choose to move out of high-risk floodplains and allow those ecosystems to restore themselves, the conversations communities are having today and the decisions that are made in the coming months will have lasting impacts for people, salmon and whole ecosystems.

In some low-lying areas, where the risks are particularly high, it might make the most sense for people to move out of the floodplain, Lyle said. Not only would that return vital habitat to salmon, but it could reduce the overall flood risk for other areas by opening up space for the river to expand during high flows.

These can be challenging and complex conversations for communities to have, but in the context of a changing climate, growing flood risks and struggling salmon populations, they’re becoming increasingly important. 

Fear that the next big flood could be just around the corner could drive shortsighted decision-making. Instead, Lyle said, we should slow down and consider the bigger picture.

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