Cutting the red tape: Solutions for the Lower Fraser Floodplain

December 5, 2023

By: Dene Moore

It’s been two years since the devastating floods in B.C., and we are all too aware of the importance of sustainable watershed management and how our relationship with water has changed over time as the Lower Mainland has developed.

Extensive diking began in the lower Fraser Valley in the 1860s. That paved the way for urbanization and agriculture but resulted in increased flood risks across the region. That risk disproportionately affects First Nations communities, whose lands are located in flood-prone areas.

River ecosystems have also been fragmented, leading to massive habitat loss. Around 85 percent of historical salmon habitat in the Lower Fraser has been lost, and 2019 and 2020 registered the lowest level of sockeye returns on record.

Red tape is causing major delays for flood infrastructure upgrades that would benefit salmon and communities.

Our understanding of the problems and potential solutions – such as fish-friendly flood control – has improved in recent years, yet our ability to act on that information is limited by resources and an overwhelming regulatory process.

The mighty Fraser River, where much of the current flood infrastructure is due to be replaced.

The Problem

Over the summer of 2023, Mauricio Carvallo Aceves, a municipal engineer and PhD student researching urban climate adaptation and green infrastructure, assisted the Resilient Waters project and Watershed Watch in facilitating workshops on issues related to flood control infrastructure for the Lower Mainland.

Throughout the course of that work a picture began to emerge.

Flood control infrastructure projects routinely require permits from multiple agencies spread across all levels of government.

Consultation and collaboration with First Nations are essential throughout the lifespan of a project. There may also be additional requirements for specific projects, for example, if it is near migratory bird routes or critical infrastructure like railways.

All approvals are needed before the first shovel hits the ground but there is a relatively short “fish-window” at the end of summer, during which works along the river are allowed. If permits aren’t issued in time, the project waits another year, which can have a domino effect on funding, costs and resources.

A new, fish-friendly floodgate on the Lower Aggasiz Slough.

It is ironic. Legislation put in place to protect the environment and waterways has, however unintentionally, evolved into red tape stalling many flood protection projects. Efforts to restore and improve fish habitat are drowning under the weight of an inefficient bureaucracy.

The flooded Sumas Valley in November 2021.

What We Heard

A series of interviews with local government environment and engineering staff from across the Lower Mainland provided insight into the permitting process. 

While the context in each community is different, they face similar challenges: Legislative changes have brought more requirements in the review process and there is not enough staff to keep up.

One expert interviewed pointed out that in order to evaluate permit applications, staff are provided a relatively rigid series of tables and forms to use. Unfortunately, flood control infrastructure projects are often complex, each site unique to the local ecological and hydrological characteristics.

Rarely do they fit neatly into the boxes of mandatory evaluation forms, leading to an extended back-and-forth between applicants and permitting agencies.

The Solutions

Removing environmental protection legislation is not the solution. The experts we spoke to suggested various ways to streamline the process, including:

  • A “one-stop shop” system where applicants could submit project information to be shared with all relevant agencies and levels of government. It avoids the duplication of information required for different permits and improves communication between agencies that often have comments or questions for each other concerning a project.
  • Allow staff more autonomy to use their professional and technical knowledge to evaluate permit applications beyond the rigid guidelines and forms that are not adaptable to the range of projects being proposed.

Existing infrastructure is aging and will need to be retrofitted, replaced or removed. At the same time, as efforts to reverse the negative consequences of previous urban development continue, more projects will need to go through the permitting process.

Communities and permitting agencies must be able to deal with the influx of projects. Everyone involved needs to be part of discussions to address the shortcomings of the current system. 

Climate change is increasing flood risk in the Lower Fraser. The suggestions that came from these workshops and interviews can contribute to discussions that need to happen now so communities of the Lower Fraser are empowered to mitigate flood risks, especially those that support First Nations priorities, sustainable economies, and benefit ecosystems.

Share This Story!

Cutting the red tape: Solutions for the Lower Fraser Floodplain

December 5, 2023

By: Dene Moore

It’s been two years since the devastating floods in B.C., and we are all too aware of the importance of sustainable watershed management and how our relationship with water has changed over time as the Lower Mainland has developed.

Extensive diking began in the lower Fraser Valley in the 1860s. That paved the way for urbanization and agriculture but resulted in increased flood risks across the region. That risk disproportionately affects First Nations communities, whose lands are located in flood-prone areas.

River ecosystems have also been fragmented, leading to massive habitat loss. Around 85 percent of historical salmon habitat in the Lower Fraser has been lost, and 2019 and 2020 registered the lowest level of sockeye returns on record.

Red tape is causing major delays for flood infrastructure upgrades that would benefit salmon and communities.

Our understanding of the problems and potential solutions – such as fish-friendly flood control – has improved in recent years, yet our ability to act on that information is limited by resources and an overwhelming regulatory process.

The mighty Fraser River, where much of the current flood infrastructure is due to be replaced.

The Problem

Over the summer of 2023, Mauricio Carvallo Aceves, a municipal engineer and PhD student researching urban climate adaptation and green infrastructure, assisted the Resilient Waters project and Watershed Watch in facilitating workshops on issues related to flood control infrastructure for the Lower Mainland.

Throughout the course of that work a picture began to emerge.

Flood control infrastructure projects routinely require permits from multiple agencies spread across all levels of government.

Consultation and collaboration with First Nations are essential throughout the lifespan of a project. There may also be additional requirements for specific projects, for example, if it is near migratory bird routes or critical infrastructure like railways.

All approvals are needed before the first shovel hits the ground but there is a relatively short “fish-window” at the end of summer, during which works along the river are allowed. If permits aren’t issued in time, the project waits another year, which can have a domino effect on funding, costs and resources.

A new, fish-friendly floodgate on the Lower Aggasiz Slough.

It is ironic. Legislation put in place to protect the environment and waterways has, however unintentionally, evolved into red tape stalling many flood protection projects. Efforts to restore and improve fish habitat are drowning under the weight of an inefficient bureaucracy.

The flooded Sumas Valley in November 2021.

What We Heard

A series of interviews with local government environment and engineering staff from across the Lower Mainland provided insight into the permitting process. 

While the context in each community is different, they face similar challenges: Legislative changes have brought more requirements in the review process and there is not enough staff to keep up.

One expert interviewed pointed out that in order to evaluate permit applications, staff are provided a relatively rigid series of tables and forms to use. Unfortunately, flood control infrastructure projects are often complex, each site unique to the local ecological and hydrological characteristics.

Rarely do they fit neatly into the boxes of mandatory evaluation forms, leading to an extended back-and-forth between applicants and permitting agencies.

The Solutions

Removing environmental protection legislation is not the solution. The experts we spoke to suggested various ways to streamline the process, including:

  • A “one-stop shop” system where applicants could submit project information to be shared with all relevant agencies and levels of government. It avoids the duplication of information required for different permits and improves communication between agencies that often have comments or questions for each other concerning a project.
  • Allow staff more autonomy to use their professional and technical knowledge to evaluate permit applications beyond the rigid guidelines and forms that are not adaptable to the range of projects being proposed.

Existing infrastructure is aging and will need to be retrofitted, replaced or removed. At the same time, as efforts to reverse the negative consequences of previous urban development continue, more projects will need to go through the permitting process.

Communities and permitting agencies must be able to deal with the influx of projects. Everyone involved needs to be part of discussions to address the shortcomings of the current system. 

Climate change is increasing flood risk in the Lower Fraser. The suggestions that came from these workshops and interviews can contribute to discussions that need to happen now so communities of the Lower Fraser are empowered to mitigate flood risks, especially those that support First Nations priorities, sustainable economies, and benefit ecosystems.

Share This Story!

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One Comment

  1. jane hambrook December 13, 2023 at 11:36 am - Reply

    Once again, the powers that be have managed to manage a critically important situation into oblivion… I sincerely hope the hard work of everyone trying to sort their way through this has an army of help at their side and The Gods of success under their wings!

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