As Vancouver looks to replace aging flood-prevention infrastructure that a city report says poses “high to medium-high risk of failure,” experts say this small example underlines the challenges that coastal cities face from climate change and sea-level rise.
Vancouver will seek $750,000 through the province’s Community Emergency Preparedness Fund, after council endorsed the funding application Tuesday.
The money is earmarked for replacing tide gates in Southlands, a neighbourhood near the Fraser River along the city’s southern edge that city staff say is at risk of flooding in the near future. The gates, at openings in the riverfront dike for such things as streams, close when dangerously high tides or storm surges are anticipated.
“The City of Vancouver declared a climate emergency, and that’s about reducing emissions, but it’s also about preparing for the impacts of climate change,” said Simon Donner, a professor in the University of B.C.’s department of geography. “And sea-level rise in particular is like a big ship: We can shut the engine, but the ship’s going to keep moving for a while.”
“I think the city government is taking it seriously. I’m not sure that the city itself — the people — recognize how important this is,” Donner said. “2100 seems like a long ways away, but we’re going to be building things today that we assume are still going to be there many decades from now. So with sea-level rise planning, even if we’re planning for 2100, we need to make the decisions soon.”
Climate change will have huge financial impacts on municipalities around the world, and Vancouver and its Metro partners are doing a better job of long-term planning than some of their U.S. counterparts, said Donner.
When Donner was completing his PhD in atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1990s, he remembers learning about how New Orleans’s infrastructure was horribly ill-prepared to handle anything more than a category 2 storm. Less than a decade later, New Orleans was hammered by the category 5 Hurricane Katrina and ensuing floods caused $160 billion in damage and killed more than 1,800 people.
“Hurricane Katrina was a human disaster as much as it was a natural disaster,” Donner said. “It was years of warnings that the levees were not high enough to withstand a category 3 storm.”
Vancouver does not face the hurricane risk of the Louisiana coast, Donner said, but the inhabitants of this coastal city should understand the seriousness of the risks here.
Southlands alone has more than 400 buildings and 2,000 people that could be affected during a severe flood, the city report before council this week says. Southlands is at risk for “significant flooding in the near future” during a very rare flood, but a tide-gate failure would render parts of the area “vulnerable to flooding during much more common events.”
And, the report goes on to say, the Southlands tide-gates are either at or near the end of their design life and have been categorized as “high to medium-high risk of failure,” with preliminary inspections revealing “pipe abnormalities,” “structural damage,” and “significant corrosion.”
“That’s definitely a problem,” said Kees Lokman, an associate professor at UBC’s school of architecture and landscape architecture and an expert in coastal adaptation to climate change.
“I think the cities in the region are doing a good job in trying to understand the risks,” Lokman said. “But there’s very little financial support and cross-jurisdictional support from the province or the federal government. … And these are very expensive propositions.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, council quickly and unanimously OK’d staff’s request to seek provincial money for the flood-mitigation infrastructure. But when it came time to decide how the city spends its own limited budget on climate-related measures, there was debate.
City staff was seeking council’s approval for increases of $8.1 million to the capital plan and another $12.4 million for the multi-year capital projects budget, which included building retrofits to reduce emissions, maintenance, Stanley Park seawall repairs, upgrading the 50-year-old fuelling infrastructure at the city’s Manitoba Street works yard, and more.
NPA Councillors Colleen Hardwick and Melissa De Genova lodged the only two votes against the capital plan increase, while Hardwick alone opposed the capital projects budget increase.
Later, Hardwick said she thought certain spending — such as walking and cycling infrastructure and electric vehicle charging — could be delayed. And while she didn’t personally object to all the items bundled together in the recommendations she voted against, she said they were going to pass and she wanted to “make a statement” about capital budget increases.
“As council is facing the reality of the city’s financial situation going forward, believe me, this is going to become more and more serious,” Hardwick said. “Mark my words.”
During the council meeting, Hardwick explained her concerns about the city’s finances, which have been hammered by the pandemic.
“Everyone wants to save the planet, but we have a question of balance here in our city’s finances,” Hardwick said. “We’re talking about millions of dollars that are coming from our taxpaying citizens.”
Green Coun. Adriane Carr, meanwhile, urged her fellow council members not to think in terms of a single budget year or council term, but of their decisions’ “generational” impact.
“What would the cost be to the city if climate change went on unabated?” Carr said. “We have to think bigger picture in terms of the choices we make.”