British Columbia·Stories About Here

Our cities will keep flooding. What if we stopped fighting it and worked with nature instead?

Learning to live with fluctuating rivers could be better for ourselves and our environment, writes Uytae Lee, who explores solutions to flooding in the final episode of 'Stories About Here' on CBC Gem.

A more responsible response to flooding might be to create space for them, writes Uytae Lee

In November 2021, Abbotsford, B.C. was greatly affected by historic flooding that environmental experts warn is likely to become more common in the years ahead. (Stories About Here)

This story is part of Uytae Lee's Stories About Here, an original series with the CBC Creator Network. You can watch every episode of this series on CBC Gem.

In November 2021, Abbotsford, B.C. was deluged with several days of heavy rain, flooding much of the low-lying valley around the city, wreaking havoc and causing millions of dollars in damage. 

With climate change, that will likely happen a lot more often in cities across Canada, including Calgary, Ottawa, and Montreal.

So what should we do about this?

Dikes and dams

Rivers are not naturally static bodies of water. A river can fluctuate in size and even shift direction depending on the climate, resulting in floods to the land next to it.

Over the years, humans have built dikes and other structures to ensure the river stays in its lane and allow them to build settlements nearby.

But climate change and the floods it brings are proving to be a real threat to structures like these.

That was seen in the Fraser River valley of British Columbia.

Provincial government data projects that by the end of the 21st century, floods we're used to seeing every 200 to 500 years will start occurring closer to every 50 years, and a survey of dikes in the Fraser Valley conducted by the Fraser Basin Council found that 71 per cent of them could fail during this kind of a flood. Fixing them comes with a huge price tag — up to $10 billion for the Metro Vancouver area alone by some estimates.

There are other solutions: in Calgary, the city is looking to build a $744-million reservoir to temporarily hold water when its river runs high, while in Ontario, the Clairville dam holds back water to help prevent flooding in the Greater Toronto Area. 

Then there's Winnipeg, where in the 1960s, the city dug out what is effectively a giant ditch to keep from flooding. During heavy rains, it reroutes water from the Red River around the entire city. At the time, it was the second largest earth-moving project in the world after the Panama Canal.

These solutions, however, have one thing in common: the extraordinary cost.

The salmon solution

Fortunately, I found an initiative that has helped me look at the issue a bit differently — one aimed at helping salmon.

The Fraser River is the world's largest salmon-producing river. Each year, hundreds of thousands to millions of these fish swim up the Fraser to spawn, and their offspring then make their way back toward the Pacific. Along the way, they look for refuge in little streams, marshes or sloughs to rest and grow stronger before they swim out to the ocean. 

But it turns out dikes dotted throughout the Fraser Valley have blocked salmon from accessing these crucial resting areas. According to the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, over 1,500 kilometres of habitat have been blocked by dikes. 

The Fraser is the world's largest salmon-producing river. Many are advocating for salmon-friendly infrastructure to be integrated to upgrades to dikes. (Stories About Here)

Now, as the need comes for some of these dikes to be upgraded, many are advocating for salmon-friendly infrastructure to be integrated to the changes.

These include gates that open to let fish access the streams behind the dikes, or pump stations that don't harm fish while water is pumped from the stream to the river. 

These proposals come as salmon returns are on a dangerous decline. Last year, the federal government closed 60 per cent of commercial salmon fisheries because they were on the "verge of collapse."

They also highlight how building these dikes may not have been the best idea in the first place.

Managed retreats

In the long term, a more responsible response to increased flooding might be to create space for them to happen naturally, and move people safely out of the way. 

In 2006, the Netherlands launched Room for the River, a program that involved buying out homeowners who lived close to rivers and moving their dikes further back to create more space for river floods.

A little closer to home, communities like Grand Forks, B.C. have adopted a "managed retreat" strategy, buying out homeowners whose properties are likely to be destroyed by future flooding.

Abbotsford, B.C. pictured under floodwaters on Nov. 16, 2021. (Stories About Here)

These require difficult conversations with people who are losing their homes. But each restored floodplain comes with new marshes, wetlands and creeks that offer new habitats for wildlife, while also creating critical protections for communities around them.

Our knee-jerk reaction to things like flooding has often been to fight back against our natural environments to preserve human-made landscapes.

But as we see floods become a bigger problem, we're invited to re-examine our relationship with the natural world — or at the very least, help out some salmon.


See some of the solutions discussed in this story by watching "Stories About Here: What Do We Do About River Floods?"

About this series

Stories About Here is an original series with the CBC Creator Network that explores the urban planning challenges that communities across Canada face today. In each episode we dig into the often overlooked issues in our own backyards — whether it's the shortage of public bathrooms, sewage leaking into the water, or the bureaucratic roots of the housing crisis. Through it all, we hope to inspire people to become better informed and engaged members of their communities.

You can watch every episode of this series on CBC Gem.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Uytae Lee produces videos that educate people on the urban planning challenges cities face today. He is the creator of the CBC series “Stories About Here,” where he explores often overlooked issues in our own backyards. In addition to producing videos for CBC, he hosts a YouTube channel called “About Here." You can reach Lee at aboutherevideos@gmail.com.

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