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Rebuilding B.C. dikes threatens 'historic' opportunity to heal salmon habitat, say environmentalists

With big money for B.C. flood protection on the horizon, an environmental group warns the status quo could sink salmon species' prospects for survival. Could paying farmers to heal their land work?
sockeysalmon
A spawning sockeye salmon in Adams River, B.C.

After years of underfunding, the recent floods in British Columbia are prompting all levels of government to reassess gaps in how communities are protected from rising waters.

Top of the list is upgrading dikes along the Lower Fraser River. Now, an environmental group is warning that if built to old specifications, such barriers could have a devastating impact on wild salmon populations.

Over the summer, the federal government pledged $647 million to help restore Pacific wild salmon habitat in many of the areas ravaged by flooding last month. Now, as Ottawa signals its prepared to pour billions of dollars into B.C. to buttress its flood control systems, Watershed Watch Salmon Society’s executive director Aaron Hill says now is the time to move beyond status quo diking technology. What's needed, he says, is a better way to protect both people and fish.

“They’ll have seized historic opportunity and done an amazing thing,” says Hill. “It’s hard to overstate the gravity of this moment.”

Bringing B.C.'s dike system up to current standards is expected to cost billions of dollars. None of the current system's flood protections were designed for climate change and there are no guarantees that a higher dike or more dredging will hold into the future.

"Diking alone is not going to get us out of this situation," says Fraser Basin Council's Steve Litke, who is helping develop a flood strategy for the Lower Mainland. "There may be limits. We need to look at other measures as well." 

Part of that means tearing down what isn't working, says Hill.

Watershed Watch is in the process of mapping out where old pumps and floodgates can be made fish-friendly, and where dikes can be safely torn down to safely flood a field and provide an outlet for water. So far, they have identified roughly 150 locations across the Lower Mainland.

“The really cool thing about this is there’s no trade-off in doing the right thing here. There are modern, well-proven flood control solutions that make people safer and are good for salmon,” Hill tells Glacier Media.

Other solutions include leaving floodgates open when not needed or replacing old infrastructure with better designs that have fish and farmers in mind.

“A majority of the pump stations are literally fish-killing machines,” says Lina Azeez, who helps manage Watershed Watch Salmon Society’s connected waters campaign. “Modern, fish-friendly pumps are now available.”

In August, UBC researchers found 85 per cent of historic salmon habitat had been lost since settlers arrived in the Lower Fraser River in the 1850s. The researchers, who mapped hundreds of obstacles in streams and along dikes, called for the removal of 1,200 barriers across the southern end of B.C.’s largest river.

According to Hill, many of those barriers can be removed or modified in a “win-win-win” for farmers, fish and First Nations.

But in other areas, like Abbotsford’s Sumas Prairie, the collision between human settlement and wild salmon habitat is unavoidable, says Hill.

He says charting a path forward requires both leadership from all levels of government and starting some tough conversations around managed retreat.

“The important thing to recognize is that the people who will have to make sacrifices are already in harm's way. They’re getting hammered by the flooding,” Hill says.

But in conversations with Glacier Media, several farmers hit hard by flooding in the Sumas Prairie said they have no plans on leaving. Shortly after rescuing his mother from their flooded home, Karter Thandi said he would rebuild no matter what.

“We’re farmers. We endure,” he said at the time.

PAYING FARMERS TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM

The hard work of relocating communities to escape repeated flooding has found some success south of the border. Since 2013, Washington State’s Floodplains by Design program has bought out residents of 434 homes or structures from 15 high-risk floodplains. That’s helped protect over 2,200 more homes from flooding, while improving salmon habitat and farmland.

David Zehnder is now looking to repeat that success in B.C. A cattle rancher outside the Kootenay town of Invermere, it all began with a birding festival.

When he and other birders started tallying species across his property, they found a huge concentration near the shores of Bunyan Lake — the same place Zehnder's cows tended to concentrate.

“Our bird numbers went through the roof,” he says. “But it was being impacted by our cattle.”

When the rancher put up a fence to keep the cattle away, he says a light went off. One small act led to improved water quality, animal health and habitat for fish and birds.

In the years since, Zehnder has worked to fine-tune a system that channels government money, public safety, farmers’ livelihoods and habitat into one solution.

After years of pilot studies, Farmland Advantage launched in January 2021 with the goal of helping farmers look after their own land. Today, there’s a nucleus of 60 farmers enrolled in the program, each one getting paid to carry out a variety of measures, from protecting streams to reducing the likelihood of flooding.

Some are planting cottonwood trees along once-barren riverbanks so they don’t get blasted away when waters rise; some grassland ranchers are creating better habitats for species at risk that double as fire breaks.

“You can target farmers along this whole edge of Kamloops to create a two-kilometre fire buffer,” he says. “By contracting and having some money to do that, you’re not coming in with a heavy hand.”

Zehnder says the group targets farmers based on a goal, such as improving the health of a river or its ability to withstand flood.

After targeting which parcel of land is best positioned to help, roughly 98 per cent of the farmers whose doors they have knocked on agree to work with them. In fact, there’s now a waiting list of candidates wanting to join the program, says Zehnder.

That work extends to First Nation reserves as well. Together with the Shushwap Indian Band, Zehnder says Farmland Advantage is working to restore salmon habitat in the upper Columbia River basin.

Research has shown it's paying off.

Environmental analyses during the pilot phase of the project — which included hundreds of farms across the whole province — showed a one-to-10 return on investment. Fix the ecosystem that naturally filters water, the evidence shows, and you directly reduce the cost of water filtration.

International studies have found similar results. According to an October report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development, nature-based solutions to flooding and wastewater cost roughly half that of traditional infrastructure.

Municipalities already support such measures. The Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) passed a resolution in 2020 calling on upper levels of government to “promote natural assets as a viable emergency planning solution;” this year, UBCM resolved to request a $75-million-a-year Watershed Security Fund from the province to help municipalities govern their waterways.

After the most devastating floods in B.C.’s modern history, Zehnder says now is the time to scale the program across the province.

“If we have the funding, this thing can scale immediately,” he says. “We now have a rigorous model that’s ready for prime-time.”

Paying farmers to build up natural flood defences and clean up waterways has its limits. Zehnder says it's groups like Watershed Watch that need to be consulted when it comes to installing fish-friendly flood defences. And building up any major flood works is going to require big government dollars and planning.

When a Dutch engineer came to examine the Lower Mainland’s diking system, Zehnder says in many cases, he recommended moving dikes back 500 metres from the river and building smaller dikes near the river’s banks.

That way, when a big flood came, the water could spill over the smaller dikes but still not reach a community. The land between the two dikes could still be farmed, but could be planted with perennial species that absorb water.

“What often happens after a catastrophe is there’s a lot of political pressure for an immediate response, people trying to urgently get things back to a functional state,” says Zehnder, sympathetic to farmers trying to rebuild a piece of what they lost. “We’re saying now is the time to bring in these experts to talk about these better approaches, these natural defences.”

No one alone has the answer, but Zehnder says his model is a proven way to get locals working towards the same solution on the ground.

"We want to be part of the plan that has been struck between the premier and the prime minister," said Zehnder. “We’re not claiming perfection, but we can do better than a higher dike and a deeper river.”

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