Watershed Watch’s Habitats Program Director Lina Azeez

The atmospheric rivers and floods of November 2021 were a wake-up call for B.C.

TV news and tweets from evacuated communities graphically showed the province is not prepared for the extreme weather events predicted to come with climate change. The damage was devastating. The City of Abbotsford suffered one of Canada’s worst flooding disasters. The total damage was pegged at $450 million, with some 1,100 properties flooded, most of them farms. The record rainfall in November 2021 caused havoc with southern B.C. infrastructure. On the Coquihalla Highway –  just one route impacted – there were seven bridges that collapsed or were severely damaged.

Participants brainstorming at the 2023 Lower Fraser Flood Forum

As communities scrambled to rebuild — to standards that may not protect them in a changing climate — a lack of regional coordination and planning to reduce future flood risk was suddenly very apparent. Watershed Watch and our colleagues from the Indigenous-led Lower Fraser Floodplains Coalition (LFFC, formerly the Build Back Better, Together Collaborative) decided something had to be done to ensure conversations about flood risk prevention include the need to increase our flood resiliency. Watershed Watch is a founding member of the Coalition.

What is flood resiliency?

Flood resilience is the capacity of communities, infrastructure, and ecosystems to withstand and recover from flooding. In order to minimize the devastating, and sometimes deadly, consequences of flood, it is crucial to develop strategies that enhance our ability to bounce back from flooding.

Five Principles for Working Together in the Lower Fraser Floodplain

The Coalition, with the guidance of experts and leaders in the field of flood management, have drafted a list of Five Principles for Working Together in the Lower Fraser Floodplain.

Aerial view of the November 2021 flooding in Chilliwack, B.C.

These principles aim to improve the ability of communities to withstand severe flood events and move quickly into recovery with the least amount of damage.

  • Reducing risk and adapting to climate change: this means taking a thoughtful and proactive approach to living in the floodplain, better understanding the risks we face, learning from past flood events and making informed choices.
  • Advancing reconciliation: with the adoption into law of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples comes a new era in the shared landscape of the Lower Fraser. First Nations must be at decision-making tables for funding and planning that affects their communities and territories. This is an opportunity to heal colonial legacies and move forward together with floodplain management that is in line with the values and priorities of their communities.
  • Ensuring that salmon are thriving: being a keystone species in the Lower Fraser, salmon are integral to the cultural security of Lower Fraser First Nations, and to the regional economy. The health of their ecosystems needs to be part of floodplain management. This means fish-friendly flood gates and pumps, improvements in riparian protection, reconnecting and restoring waterways, and protecting and enhancing water quality and quantity.
  • Supporting sustainable economies and resilient communities: a long-term vision for the Lower Fraser is needed, so we can develop a roadmap and milestones to move us from recovery to living well together in the floodplain. Good relationships based on shared values and trust are necessary. This is an opportunity to explore new and alternative economies that will thrive in a changed climate. This event forced the closure of the US/Canada Border and Highway 1, effectively stopping the flow of people, goods and services.
  • Making everyone part of the solution: there is a role and a responsibility for everyone in developing a more holistic approach to floodplain management. Relationship-building is a foundation for working together in a respectful way, overcoming silos, reducing conflict and meeting the needs of other species with whom we share the floodplain.

Doing this work together, as a larger community, has numerous benefits. It reduces the risk of loss of life during flood events and it minimizes damage to critical infrastructure, including homes, roads, utilities, and businesses. Additionally, enhancing flood resilience helps reduce economic losses associated with flooding, such as insurance claims, business interruptions, and recovery costs. Moreover, resilient communities are better positioned to recover quickly and adapt to changing conditions, ensuring long-term sustainability and well-being.

We are excited at the momentum and interest by lower Fraser First Nations, local governments, farmers, and the provincial and federal governments in coming together to limit the damage from flooding.

The Coalition will continue to advocate, convene and start work in the region, to showcase what flood resiliency could look like in the future.