Living with water project explores coastal adaptation plans to address rising sea levels
By Peter Underwood
The UVic based Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) launched the Living with Water project on Dec. 15th. This $1 million, four-year Theme Partnership Project connects teams of researchers who will look for solutions to rising sea level and coastal flooding with climate solution seekers, including local First Nations governments, municipalities, and federal and provincial governments.
With Indigenous communities on board, the team will explore cutting-edge solutions to coastal adaptation like multi-functional dikes, or nature-based solutions, such as wetland conservation, while centering the values and knowledge of Indigenous communities.
It’s expected that sea levels will rise 50 cm by 2050 and 1.2 metres by 2100. For the 80 per cent of British Columbians that live within five kilometers of the coastline, this means B.C. needs a plan for adapting with our changing coast.
Currently, neither the provincial or federal government have a plan for adapting to the rising sea levels or coastal flooding. Instead this responsibility falls on municipalities and First Nations who are limited by legislation to plan infrastructure only within their own boundaries. The Living with Water project aims to address this and could find solutions that serve as a model for coastal adaptation nationally or internationally.
“[PICS Theme Partnership Projects] generate new knowledge, build international leadership within British Columbia’s research community, and help drive further innovation in critical thematic areas,” states the PICS site.
The project is led by the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Coastal Adaptation Lab in partnership with Simon Fraser University, the University of Waterloo, Wageningen University, and West Coast Environmental Law.
The research will be based in southern B.C.’s Fraser River Delta, Squamish Delta and Burrard Inlet. The team will conduct case studies of flood adaptation projects that already exist, then use that data to develop frameworks that will help coastal communities prepare to adapt for rising sea levels and changes to the sea’s behaviour.
“There’s not any regional authority that manages flood protection,” said Hannah Teicher, PhD, researcher in residence at PICS, “so what we’re doing is bringing together people across municipalities and First Nations in the lower mainland to learn from some ongoing projects and initiatives and figure out how they can better address adaptation planning at the regional scale.”
The project consists of three major components that will work in conjunction over the next four years.
The first component is about “understanding the values that inform adaptation, so that’s community values and Indigenous knowledge,” said Teicher. Since coastal lands can offer space for highly profitable developments, it can be tough for decision makers to consider conserving coastal wetlands that would help protect the coast and surrounding area from flooding.
Kees Lokman, principal investigator of the PICS Living with Water project said “there is an urgent need to examine alternative solutions that support a wider range of values.” Lokman said that coastal wetlands and salt marshes are natural buffers against waves and flooding. He also expressed the importance of coastal communities developing frameworks that evaluate the pros and cons of either reinforcing or protecting existing shorelines, accommodating rising water levels or making a strategic retreat to higher grounds.
“The second main component is expanding the solutions space. Typically flood management has been done with dikes, with concrete — so-called ‘grey infrastructure,'” said Teicher. “Increasingly there’s interest in ‘green infrastructure’ or nature-based solutions, as well as things like a managed retreat. This will try to open up that conversation so that there are more solutions on the table.”
River deltas offer unique coastal wetland ecological zones that have always been accessed and utilized by Indigenous communities. These areas are highly valued and can be abundant food sources.
“The Living with Water project will conduct much-needed research to inform decision-makers of ways to support the resilience of these important ecosystems and incorporate them into local coastal flood protection defenses for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations,” said Eric Balke, coordinator for the South Coast Conservation Land Management Program.
PEPAḴIYE Ashley Cooper, environmental committee member at the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council, agrees that wetlands are a key component in conservation as they are key in reducing carbon emissions. She said it’s a waste of money to fight against wetlands by draining them for agriculture or building developments, and she values the wetlands as a traditional and historically abundant food source. She said that “there used to be so many ducks that the sky would blackout as they flew off.”
The third component of the project addresses the challenges and barriers of governance. Teicher says it’s about how First Nations and municipalities can work with provincial and federal governments to effectively address rising seas and coastal flooding. This could address the challenge of coming up with structures or plans that span across several municipalities and/or First Nations communities, and could lead to more communities working together.
The Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and the Tsleil-Waututh nations are both involved as “solution seekers” and are very hands on with the project’s development, direction, and potential outcomes.
The project utilizes UBC’s Indigenous Research Support Initiative (IRSI), which provides professional research support and resources for Indigenous nations and university researchers to use when working together. The initiative helps provide structure for developing protocols and ethics, mutual accountability, and ensuring that all parties benefit from the research.
Teicher stated “we are working on [the IRSI protocols] with each of the First Nations so we can come to an agreement about the terms of engagement and how data will be used all with respect for the confidentiality and the Indigenous partners having full ownership of their knowledge and the ability to determine at any time whether that knowledge can or can’t be used in the ways the researchers may be interested in using it.”
Since 2016, the IRSI has helped many B.C. Indigenous communities form relationships with researchers to ensure projects mutually benefit both parties. The IRSI has helped with the Heiltsuk nation’s Tiny Homes Project, and the Teslin Tlingit Council’s Łdakat kha_̂wu’sh îxhdashi (everybody heals) project.
Living with Water’s involvement with Indigenous nations is what makes the project so important and unique. Teicher is most excited about the level of Indigenous involvement, because there have been so many regional adaptation efforts in Canada and across the world, but it has been rare to have Indigenous partnership or involvement.
“There are many regional adaptation groups I know of where there hasn’t been any Indigenous involvement and I think that both from a research and practical perspective that this could really change the field in terms of how we think about the potential solutions,” Teicher said.