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17th March 2019
Sprawling clearcuts among reasons for B.C.’s monster spring floods

Wildfire, drought and a pine beetle epidemic are piling on top of a long history of logging, pushing the province’s forests to a dangerous tipping point that experts say will make bad flooding worse

Ben Parfitt Mar 13, 2019

Every spring and typically in May the Kettle River hits peak flow.

A gauge placed in the water downstream of where the Kettle is joined by the Granby River has recorded those peaks for nearly ninety years, and in most years the peaks range between 20,000 and 30,000 cubic feet of water per second.

That’s enough water to fill an Olympic size swimming pool every four seconds, give or take. But for decades it has caused little concern in southern British Columbia’s Boundary region or the City of Grand Forks, which is located at the confluence of the two rivers.

In 2017, however, the Kettle’s peak flow hit 33,000 cubic feet per second, its highest point in 60 years.

Floods occurred.

Then last year all hell broke loose in “the quickest and fastest spectacle of nature” local resident Donovan Harris says he’s ever seen.

As the snowpacks melted, the small feeder creeks high up on the forested slopes behind the community swelled with water.

As the creeks merged with streams and later the Granby and Kettle rivers themselves, water levels rose frighteningly fast. By May, the swollen Kettle’s flow was a monstrous 48,500 cubic feet per second.

For Jennifer Houghton, the difference between flood years was stark: a waterline on the walls of her home of 1.5 feet in 2017 and more than 4 feet the following year.

She now believes that the loss of her home and those of many of her neighbours had much to do with the relentless logging that has occurred in the region.

Our watershed needs a rest’

“Am I concerned that the flooding is going to get worse? Yes,” says Houghton. “Am I concerned that the logging is going to continue and make it worse? Yes.”

She adds, “I think our watershed needs a rest. And I think the government should seriously be considering putting a moratorium on logging in our watershed in high-risk areas until more assessment is done.”

Houghton is not alone in her concerns.

Widespread, disastrous flooding in the Fraser Valley was narrowly averted last spring when the Fraser River swelled. Many older forests in the valleys draining into the river’s upper reaches are gone due to clear-cut logging, raging wildfires and insect attacks, all of which can increase peak water flows.

Despite this, British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development continues to approve high logging rates while doing little to understand their cumulative effects.

This has prompted a former ministry employee and professional forester who served in numerous senior positions over a 40-year period to warn that further calamities may lie ahead.

“The way in which the ministry operates is doing irreversible harm to the environment and to British Columbians,” says Anthony Britneff, who follows events in the Grand Forks area closely.

Since last fall, when The Narwhal visited the Grand Forks area to profile how local residents were faring in the aftermath of the flood, Houghton has spearheaded efforts to raise awareness about how accelerating forest losses may have contributed to the calamity — a delicate task in a community with a longstanding forest industry presence.

Her efforts culminated in a public meeting in January at which ecologist and professional forester, Herb Hammond, and local woodlot owner, Fred Marshall, spoke.

A proliferation of clear-cuts

At the meeting, Hammond used maps prepared by Dave Leversee to highlight his concerns.

The Seattle-based mapping expert has documented declines in old-growth forests on Haida Gwaii, Vancouver Island and portions of B.C.’s vast interior.

Leversee’s maps graphically captured the logging in valleys draining into the Kettle and Granby rivers, especially the spider’s web of clear-cuts higher up on the slopes where the air is colder and deeper snowpacks naturally occur.

Hammond likened the proliferation of clear-cuts to “a bad case of the measles” and said they have altered the natural movement of water through the landscape.

In clear-cuts, all the trees in a forest are cut down. The logged lands accumulate up to 40 per cent more snow than in an unlogged forest, Hammond said. When temperatures warm, the melting snow and runoff from the clear-cuts occurs far faster than in the forest.

“All of that adds up to degraded hydrology and things like floods and the droughts that will come next,” Hammond warns.

Trees in a healthy forest, transpire somewhere between 500 and 700 millimeters of water per year, says Allan Chapman, a hydrologist and professional geoscientist who retired in 2017 after a 30-year public service career including stints with the forests and environment ministries and the Oil and Gas Commission. That’s water that is taken up from the tree roots and released back into the atmosphere — water that does not accumulate in the soil to later enter streams and rivers.

In the absence of trees, “soils become wetter,” Chapman says. “Why is that important? Because when you log an area, the ability of soil to store water is reduced, therefore more of that water runs off quicker.”

Trees in unlogged forests also capture one quarter or more of falling snow. Through a process called sublimation, much of that intercepted snow returns to the atmosphere as a gas, skipping the liquid phase all together. In clear-cuts there is nothing to intercept that snow. It just builds and builds.

While logging companies must “reforest” what they clear-cut — something typically achieved by hiring tree-planting crews to do the brutal work of sinking new seedlings into the scarred earth — it will take 30 years or so following planting before the new trees transpire healthy volumes of water once again, Chapman says.

Assuming, that is, that the young trees survive. Increasingly, many of them do not — they’re dying prematurely in wildfires and from pest and disease outbreaks.

Burned forests exacerbate problems

In Baker Creek, a watershed near Quesnel, 90 per cent of the trees are either killed by mountain pine beetles or clear-cut. The result, Chapman says, is “larger volumes of runoff in Baker Creek that will persist for decades.”

Bob Simpson, a former MLA and forestry critic, is Quesnel’s mayor. The city boasts the biggest forest industry investments per capita of any community in B.C. and has two pulp mills, sawmills, panel mills and value-added mills.

Quesnel is also at the epicenter of the most dramatic changes to forests in the province, particularly on the sprawling Chilcotin plateau west of the Fraser River.

“It’s a blown-out landscape. It’s either dead from mountain pine beetle, or other pests and diseases, or burnt,” Simpson says, adding that the critical test for his community, the forest industry and the province is to make that landscape more “resilient.”

In 2017 and 2018, out-of-control wildfires burned more than 2.4 million hectares of forest in B.C., roughly four Prince Edward Islands. Many of those infernos, which cost $700 million to fight, were near Quesnel and in the greater Fraser River watershed.

During last year’s record wildfires, Premier John Horgan called the devastation “the new normal” of climate change. But Simpson says such comments are unhelpful and divert attention away from essential questions about how B.C.’s forests are managed.

For example, logging companies typically plant more lodgepole pine trees than they log. Why? Because pine trees thrive in open, sunny settings — precisely what you get when you clear-cut a forest. Such planting then sets the table for the beetles that are building in number due to climate change. Many of those trees then burn in wildfires, which forest scientists have predicted for decades will increase in frequency and severity as temperatures warm and drier conditions prevail.

Our forests are “just not managed in a way that is resilient to endemic pests and diseases and is resilient to wildfires that are part of the natural cycle,” Simpson says. “We have a simplified landscape that cannot, does not, have the natural breaks, does not have the natural stopgaps to stop these massive epidemics that we’re experiencing and then these massive fires.”

Burned forests then exacerbate problems, potentially increasing flood severity.

“For some period of time after a hot fire occurs, the upper levels of soil have a waxy layer that is hydrophobic and a decreased volume of water enters the soil. It just runs off,” Chapman says. That increased runoff may last for years.

‘This town relies on Interfor’

In a presentation to Grand Forks city council in early January, Jeff Becker, forests and woods manager for Interfor, one of the largest lumber producers in the world, noted how wildfires are increasing in severity in the Grand Forks area where the company operates a sawmill.

Wildfires burned more than 24,000 hectares of local forest in the last four years — more than twice the area burned in the 30 years before that.

During his presentation, Becker said he knew about the meeting that Houghton was organizing for the following week. He wanted to make sure that council members had certain “facts” before them prior to that meeting.

“There’s been a bit of misinformation on exactly what happened and how it happened,” Becker said. “We just want to make sure that there’s a balanced kind of view on it.”

Becker said the key reason for the flood was “unusual” weather including a snowpack that was 230 per cent above normal, warm spring weather and rains that accelerated the snow melt.

“We know that happened,” Becker said.

While Becker did not deny that “forestry isn’t part of the issue” when it comes to altered water flows, he claimed that roughly only one per cent of forests in the Grand Forks area were logged each year.

Becker’s remarks clearly resonated with Grand Forks councillor Chris Moslin who singled out Becker’s employer for praise. “This town relies on Interfor, not just for employment but…for flood protection,” Moslin said, adding that the company had donated heavy equipment and personnel to battle the rising waters.

Eight days after Becker’s presentation, people attending the meeting organized by Houghton heard a different story. They learned that 18 per cent of the total land base in the valleys draining toward the Granby and Kettle rivers had been logged since 1990, an amount not far removed from what Becker said.

But they also learned something else. That the vast amount of that logging was concentrated at higher elevations where more snow accumulated. In fact, 44 per cent of the “harvestable” timber — industry jargon for available to log — had been clear-cut in such forests.

...continued in Part 2