ENVIRO NOTES: Prepare for flood, drought

Crisis preparation is needed for our water supply, writes PAN environment columnist Roy Strang.

It’s generally recognized that our changing climate is bringing about changes in rainfall patterns.

Here in B.C., we currently experience a wide range of precipitation, from the 2,590 millimetres that fall on Prince Rupert annually (much more on Mitchell Island), to Ashcroft’s 200 mm.

Though these may seem extreme, they pale beside Cherrapunji’s 11,500 mm, reputedly the wettest place on earth, or Chile’s Atacama desert, where no precipitation has been recorded at all for decades.

Water is essential for life as we understand it, but one can have too much or too little of any good thing, and water is no exception.

Here on the Lower Mainland, we escape the worst extremes and can only sympathize with the Alliance of Small Island States (44 of them) which are threatened with inundation as ocean levels rise in response to glacier melting and heated ocean expansion.

Their likely flooding raises a host of questions about statehood, sovereignty, Law of the Sea and climate refugee laws, but we are not directly involved.

Are any plans yet envisaged to deal with climate refugees as Marshall Islanders, Maldive Island residents, and quite possibly also some from small Caribbean islands, are forced from their homes by rising ocean levels?

For example, the Tyson Foods plant in Springlake, Ark., is largely staffed by displaced Marshall Islanders; would we accept such an influx?

The lower Fraser Valley and delta suffered the impact of too much water in 1894, 1948 and 1972, when the river overflowed. Diking improvements followed, but how well is the coastal area protected against rising oceans, not just a river in spate?

Vancouver airport and much of Richmond are vulnerable, as is our own Crescent Beach, though it’s shielded by Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula. Are our engineers and planners learning from Dutch experiences and their encouraging trials with large-scale flotation construction?

In even the worst-case scenario, the Semiahmoo Peninsula would stay dry but it could well become an island or at least be cut off, with the lower Nicomekl and Little Campbell rivers connected by swamp or marshland and the roads and railways flooded and impassable. What then?

We are much more likely to be harmed by too little water, drought, in the neighbouring United States and Mexico than by any surplus.

Food production in California and northern Mexico depends on irrigation water from the Colorado and other rivers or from underground aquifers, all of which are stressed now. Less rain or snow will have a direct and immediate adverse impact, while any compensating expansion of farming northwards as Canada warms will be slow and tentative.

We can expect food prices to rise as crop yields decline in the south-western U.S., directly affecting us all.

Does this thinking bear on decisions about conserving our ALR? It should.

How ready are our federal, provincial and municipal governments to address the inevitable U.S. calls for access to Canada’s ‘excess’ water as their wells run dry? The 50-years-old North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) gave due warning that such a day will come sooner or later. It may not be far away now.

It will be preferable to have frank and open debate and discussion of such eventualities now while we are unhurried and have time to arrive at rational decisions rather than be forced into hasty, ill-considered responses as a crisis unfolds.

I don’t recall hearing water mentioned in any policy statement.

Do any of our politicians show interest?

Dr. Roy Strang writes monthly on the environment for the Peace Arch News. rmstrang@shaw.ca