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B.C. floods: How restoring wetlands and watersheds could help prevent the next disaster

Click to play video: 'B.C. organization calls for more natural methods of flood mitigation' B.C. organization calls for more natural methods of flood mitigation
As the focus turns to preventing future catastrophic floods, one organization is calling for more natural ways to reduce the risk and showing off one of its successful projects. Paul Johnson reports. – Dec 3, 2021

As British Columbia begins the long task of rebuilding after historic floods and looking at ways to repeats in the future, one group says it’s time to look at nature as a template.

The B.C. Watershed Security Coalition took Global News on a tour of one of their restoration projects at McKay Creek in North Vancouver, where they say a revitalized wetland was able to help the area around it resist November’s punishing rains.

Read more: B.C. floods: Drier, colder weather helping floodwaters recede and repairs to roads continue

“What we know is that by investing in our watersheds, investing in our natural defence systems like wetlands, like riparian buffers, like restoring our forests, helps to create more resilient communities and more resilient and safe neighbourhoods when it comes to the changing climate we see,” coalition co-chair Coree Tull said.

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The coalition, which includes non-profit groups like the Wild Coast Ecological Society and institutional bodies like the BCIT Rivers Institute and Port Coquitlam’s Engineering and Public Works department, is focused on non-partisan work to protect watersheds and their associated ecosystems.

Members of the coalition began working to restore lost wetlands around McKay Creek in 2019 with provincial and federal funding, Krystal Brennan with the Wild Coast Ecological Society explained.

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The group removed invasive grass species that had drained groundwater and excavated to recreate a natural inflow and outflow from McKay Creek. Within a year, birds had returned, and last year salmon also showed up, Brennan said.

When rain from a series of atmospheric rivers pounded the province last month, triggering flooding and landslides across southwestern B.C., the restored wetlands helped to prevent a similar outcome at the creek.

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“I have been working here since 2015. Whenever there’s a big rain event … that creek would flood, and the water would rise so fast and we’ve even seen it spill onto the roads,” Brennan said.

Read more: B.C. shatters temperature records as atmospheric river delivers warm, moist air

“This time, with all the water we’ve seen here it’s barely gone up at all. This wetland was able to absorb a lot of the water … and it also provided an outlet, so when that water got really high in the creek it was able to drain into the wetland.”

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Tull said projects like the one at McKay Creek come with an upfront cost, but in the long run are cheaper than the damage caused by climate disasters.

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What’s more, they can be effective at helping prevent some of the worst outcomes of fall and winter issues like flooding, and summer issues like heat.

“Wetlands like McKay Creek here, they hold the water and then they release it slowly in the summer when we have those hot, dry weather events preventing drought,” she said.

Read more: Abbotsford, B.C. sets all-time November rainfall record with 540 mm

“It allows us to protect our communities to whatever future droughts and floods and fires that may be coming.”

The British Columbia government has pledged to develop a watershed security fund, but Tull said the government has done little since then to advance the goal.

She said 2021’s twin disasters of heat and flooding show it’s now time to get that project off the ground, to help the province build natural defences against future crises.

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