Coree Tull and Dave Zehnder: Time to invest in watershed security

Op-Ed Featured in The Province

Opinion: Recent report from International Institute for Sustainable Development shows that natural infrastructure, like forests and wetlands, provides same services at half the cost of built infrastructure.

It’s a time of dramatic contrast for water in B.C. In the summer, there wasn’t enough; many areas went without rain for weeks on end. The result was widespread drought and intense forest fires that cost lives and livelihoods. A month’s worth of rain recently fell in a single day in southwestern B.C., resulting in catastrophic flooding.

And storms in the form of atmospheric rivers continued to rain on the province. Many people have still not returned to their homes, animals have drowned in lakes that were once fields and critical supplies were cut off as roads fell into rivers.

Given the decades of warnings from climate scientists, these events can’t be viewed as unexpected. But there is still a collective shock that this has happened in our own backyard and a shared sense of grief from the loss of safety and security in our lives.

To effectively bolster our strength and resilience for this new reality, it’s important to understand that B.C.’s catastrophic flooding has two main causes. One cause is the extremely heavy rain and/or melting snow over a very short time, which is becoming more common with a warming climate. The second cause, which gets far less air time, is the damage that’s been done to our watersheds through mismanagement and a failure to understand what Indigenous Peoples have always known — if we take care of our watersheds, they take care of us.

While attention is quickly shifting to rebuilding larger dikes and bigger pumps, it’s essential that governments work together to also rebuild our natural defences — what experts call “watershed security.” Watershed security is about recognizing the critical services that healthy, functioning watersheds provide for our communities — from drinking water and food security, to flood and drought protection.

A healthy watershed provides a natural safeguard against climate chaos: forests, wetlands and riverbanks act like sponges, slowing absorbing rain and snow melt, letting it seep into the ground over time. This groundwater is then released into streams and rivers weeks or months later, which is how rivers keep flowing in dry summers.

Clear-cutting forests or digging up wetlands destroys these natural sponges. These actions create the conditions for rapid overland flow that leads to massive landslides and flash floods. It also means less water gets released in summer when we need it most.

The areas hit worst by last week’s floods are, not surprisingly, areas of major forest and wetland destruction: 70 per cent of wetlands have disappeared in the lower Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island. The hillsides surrounding Merritt and Princeton, devastated by the floods, have been heavily logged in the last 30 years. They were also hit hard by this year’s forest fires.

A recent report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development shows that natural infrastructure, like forests and wetlands, provides the same services at half the cost of built infrastructure. The Municipal Natural Assets Initiative shows how these kinds of investments save communities tens-of-millions-of-dollars.

Governments will need to spend billions to support flood recovery. The immediate priority is getting people back into their homes and their livelihoods back on track. But as the rebuilding work begins, investments in healthy and resilient watersheds must be prioritized in this spending.

Three key actions are needed:

  • A portion of recovery funds should be allocated to strengthening natural defences. The B.C. government has committed to create a provincial Watershed Security Fund, and the need to deliver on that promise is urgent. On Nov. 30, the First Nations Leadership Council publicly called on the provincial government to prioritize the investment of watershed resiliency across B.C. through the fund.
  • The province must work in partnership with Indigenous Nations and local governments to develop local watershed authorities that can co-ordinate flood mapping, monitoring, and lead watershed planning and management.
  • And major industry players should be required to pay for the costs of their impacts on watersheds. Taxpayers shouldn’t be cleaning up after multinational companies.

Our communities, our homes and the places we love will be stronger, more resilient and more livable if we invest in our watershed security today.

Coree Tull is co-chair of the B.C. Watershed Security Coalition. Dave Zehnder is a rancher and program developer at Farmland Advantage.

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