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6th January 2023
B.C.’s flood strategy must incorporate current science on the multiple causes of flood risk

B.C. could lead the way in formalizing nature-based solutions such as restoring wetlands and developing water retention areas.

Author of the article:Younes Alila
Published Jan 05, 2023

As B.C. looks to finalize the collection of public input on a flooding strategy developed in response to extreme weather becoming more frequent and severe, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the ample science showing that flooding, and so much more, is caused by multiple factors.

Almost all British Columbians can recite, by heart, just how devastating calamities such as flooding, wildfires, extreme weather, storms and drought can be.

In 2021, B.C. experienced spring community evacuations due to wildfires, followed by a summer heat dome, and an atmospheric river in the fall that swallowed up large roadways and land throughout the southwestern part of the province. The following year, parts of B.C. were devastated by a summer drought so severe, several communities throughout the Lower Mainland, Sunshine Coast and West Vancouver Island were still plagued with drought conditions in October and November.

Most already know that climate change is undeniably contributing to these multiple natural disturbance events.

Fewer recognize, however, the severity of these events — whether they are wildfires, droughts, extreme heat or cold, or floods — is also influenced by other contributing factors that include poor policy and management planning, inadequate investment in things like flood or drought prevention and, even more specifically, large-scale, clear-cut logging.

The extent of a large clear-cut tends to alter landscapes dramatically. Removing forests from watersheds means tree canopy is no longer there to intercept precipitation. In the winter, that equates to snowmelt occurring faster. In the hotter months, it means the canopy’s barrier from solar radiation no longer exists. Moreover, losing that forest cover can make the landscape’s soil surface more susceptible to erosion from rain as the tree roots that would have acted as a natural support structure are no longer there.

Published work in recent years showed that large-scale clearcut logging can increase the magnitude, frequency, and duration of floods, and the larger the flood event, the larger the impact of logging. Studies also showed that even small rates of logging, depending on location within a watershed, could contribute to an increase in flood risk.

And even though these areas may get reforested after the fact, the planted forests are not capable of providing the same hydrologic function for decades — if ever.

Legal precedent has already been set by this reality. In a recent provincial court dispute, lawyers for the B.C. government agreed to pay to settle a lawsuit launched by a couple in Smithers whose property was flooded after a third of the forest in the surrounding watershed was cut down.

Other pending court cases, such as the Grand Forks class-action lawsuit, in which Grand Forks residents allege provincial government forestry mismanagement and negligent logging caused devastating flooding in 2018, will undoubtedly take notice.

New science tells us we must move away from a myopic lens focused on just climate change and, instead, also address the other part of the equation — which includes maintaining or repairing the current landscapes we live on and share.

The time has come to develop sustainable strategies that are rooted in Indigenous knowledge and protection of ecosystems that support the biodiversity needed for a healthy planet.

In developing a new flood strategy, B.C. could lead the way in formalizing nature-based solutions such as restoring wetlands, natural flood plains and drained lakes, as well as developing water retention areas. The approach moves away from restrictive, past colonial thinking and encompasses a more holistic approach to building natural disaster strategic plans that prioritize community-based response which, these days, includes things like community-led assistance with comprehensive flood-risk assessment.

Dr. Younes Alila is a hydrological expert and professor with UBC Faculty of Forestry.