Response to 2021 B.C. extreme flooding impacts on Pacific salmon
Significant floods in southern British Columbia in November 2021 had a sizable impact on both residents and the local environment. This unprecedented ‘atmospheric river’ event affected the Squamish River Watershed, Lower Fraser River Watershed, and the Thompson and Nicola Rivers near Merritt, as well as rivers and streams on Vancouver Island.
Immediately following the floods, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) staff responded by providing regulatory support and advice for urgent infrastructure works in and near water, to support protection of people and properties. We also worked diligently to safeguard and restore access and function to our enhancement facilities and infrastructure, including spawning channels and off-channel rearing developments requiring restoration.
We are now working with the BC government, First Nations, and other partners to assess impacts in priority watersheds where impacts on salmon and other aquatic species pose greatest conservation risk.
Given the multi-year life cycle of Pacific salmon species, impacts on fish populations may not be known for 2 to 5 years. Impacts on fish habitat will become more evident post spring freshet (that is, following high spring flows from snowmelt), when the structure and function of river and stream channels will begin to stabilize.
By working alongside partners to determine effective immediate, medium- and long-term actions, we are working to promote recovery of fish and fish habitat.
What we are doing
We have co-initiated flood recovery planning tables with partners like the Pacific Salmon Foundation in the lower Fraser River area, and the Fraser Basin Council in the Thompson region (focused on the Nicola, Spius, and Coldwater Rivers). These forums include our Provincial counterparts, First Nations, academia and non-government organizations (NGOs).
We are actively engaged at those tables where much of the focus is on joint identification of priorities. Planning for assessment and restoration work is underway for work we will undertake both immediately and following the spring freshet.
We are actively engaged with provincial authorities, local municipalities, and property owners with impacted infrastructure, to provide advice and regulatory approvals, where appropriate, to support timely repair activities in order to avoid or reduce impacts to fish and fish habitat.
Internally, we are consulting various DFO subject matter experts through a Flood Response Task Team to effectively coordinate flood related activities and support flood recovery planning work.
Our goal isn’t just to build back better, but also to build for resilience. We are working with all our partners to promote approaches which will serve to not only benefit fish, but also create resilient communities.
Floods and the future
Within riverine ecosystems, flooding is a natural ecological process. Flooding plays an important role in maintaining a functional river channel and fish habitat, by recruiting and depositing gravel, flushing fine sediments, and re-establishing side-channel connectivity. Much like forest fires can play an important role in rejuvenating forest ecosystems, flooding can play a similar role in the riverine environment.
As the science has shown, climate change is likely to make extreme weather events more intense and frequent, and future flooding events like this are a very real possibility. We must therefore re-examine the ways in which we undertake development and land use activities to better adapt to a changing climate. From a flooding perspective, practices to consider include:
- avoiding development in high-risk floodplain areas
- upgrading and realigning dikes and current land use to accommodate more frequent high flow events
- upgrading aging flood mitigation infrastructure like pump systems and flood gates to fish-friendly designs that maintain safe fish passage while offering improved protection during high flow events
- protecting and restoring off-channel habitats and wetlands that can serve to absorb surface water run-off and moderate the effects of flood waters
Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative
The $647-million Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative (PSSI) announced in June 2021 will guide and financially support efforts to conserve and rebuild salmon populations. Our focus includes:
- improved habitat monitoring and assessment, and integrated planning for salmon ecosystems
- a new Salmon Habitat Restoration Centre of Expertise which will carry out restoration work and provide technical expertise to partners who are undertaking salmon habitat restoration work
- a commitment to double the federal contribution to the jointly governed and managed BC Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund, which financially supports salmon stewardship and restoration work across B.C. External partners seeking funding for salmon restoration requirements post-flood may apply for funding once the program re-opens its application intake later in 2022
- continuing to strengthen our partnerships with the governments of British Columbia and Yukon, and with First Nations as well as NGOs to undertake collaborative and strategic planning actions to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change
Recent floods have been devastating for many. As we continue to better understand their impacts on salmon and other species, we commit to working with our partners in a strategic and coordinated way. Through all our programming, we are working to bring together the expertise required to ensure that salmon recovery and habitat restoration work we undertake is effective and considers the likelihood of future extreme weather impacts.
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