Ask Pat: flood plans

BillB asks—

If my reading of the City of New West website is correct, the Floodplain Management Strategy – Feasibility Plan is 10 years old. It also says that the City prepares for the possibility of flooding on “an annual basis”. In the light of recent floods in the area, and climate change at large, should New Westminster be doing more to prepare and prevent the likelihood of flooding?

The short answer is probably yes, in that recent events from the Heat Dome to the Fraser Valley flooding has demonstrated that there are gaps in local and regional emergency response schemes, and it might be worth a pretty comprehensive review. But I’m going to put that larger “emergency management” part aside here, because you asked specifically about flooding. I think we are in pretty good shape for the *likely* flood scenarios in the near future, but it gets murkier the further out we look.

As a caveat, I’m a geologist and physical geographer by academic training, but I am not an engineer. That means I know a little too much about the physical causes and mechanics of flooding (I can wax eloquently about Reynolds Number or identifying back-basin deposits in the rock record) but not quite enough about the engineering practice of managing floods. So nothing below here should be thought of as engineering advice or advanced engineering knowledge. You gotta pay somebody with a P.Eng. for that.

The Floodplain Management Strategy really addresses one type of flood risk we have in the City, that of freshet flooding of the Fraser River. We have another couple of risks not directly addressed by that strategy: seasonal or flash flooding on the Brunette River, and localized intense storm events like recently occurred causing minor localized flooding on Quayside Drive, which I would call “upland” floods, because they are not caused by the river rising so much as water not getting to the river fast enough. They all need different approaches, and the risk factor of each will be impacted differently by Climate Change.

As far as the Fraser River flood, this is the area I think we are most prepared for in the medium-term. The oft-mentioned survey of dike conditions report from a few years ago, circulated more widely during the current Fraser River flooding episode, makes New West look pretty good, comparatively. The Crest Elevation and Dike Assessment ratings are generally fair to good, comparable to Richmond and very far ahead of most other municipalities along the river. There has been a lot of work done since that 2005 report to improve both the dike (mostly along with new adjacent developments) and the ability to pump water out and over the dike during intense rain or if there is some local wave wash overtopping during a Freshet flood event. Just in the last couple of years, we have spent millions on upgrading the Wood Street and Boundary Road pump stations to bring them up to modern capacity need and seismic standards.

That said, from a geography sense, Fraser River freshet floods are not likely our biggest concern on this lower part of the river. Here, the water height varies more by tide and storm surge cycle than by freshet cycle. The concern to plan around is not a single spring freshet that is larger than others (like the 1894 or 1948 floods), but a significant low-pressure storm coming though during a king tide around the time of higher-than-average freshet. It is perhaps macabre to think about it, but am 1894-style freshet will likely cause dyke breaches from Hope to Langley, and this extra water storage capacity on farm land and in those more vulnerable communities may serve to reduce the danger further downriver like Queensborough and Richmond. Dike planning needs to be holistic and address the entire estuary, and that is the most common call for every community along the Fraser. There is even a model in place, we just need to fund it.

The Brunette River is a bit more complicated. It has a different freshet than the Fraser River and it is more prone to intense local storms, but the lower reaches are also impacted by flood stage in the Fraser. There are very few homes impacted by a Brunette River flood, but the Braid Industrial Area may definitely be affected, and there are areas of it not protected by any meaningful dike. This is an area where the City puts a lot of emphasis on tiger dams and sandbags if floods are predicted, but the complexity of the jurisdictions here (rail lines are federally regulated, cannot really be “raised” and rail beds are pretty permeable to water; a large part of the waterfront belongs to the Port of Vancouver, so we couldn’t dike it if we wanted to) meaning proactive measures are much harder to coordinate.

Upland floods from intense storms are much harder to predict, and the engineering solutions are daunting. There is only so much underground storm sewer pipe capacity, and though we are currently investing a lot of money in new storm sewer infrastructure, there is always a cost/benefit math around adequate capacity for very low-recurrence events. We are also investing more on “green infrastructure” such as groundwater infiltration, permeable surface treatments and trees, in hopes we can locally capture more of the storm water and reduce the “peak” of the most intense storm flows. But none of this fits in the Floodplain Strategy.

Where the report you read talks about “annual basis” planning, that means every year (starting in the late winter) we get regular updates on snowpack and predicted melt rate across the Fraser River basin. That is modelled into predicted flows in the month ahead, and we prepare flood response based on those numbers. If the freshet forecasts start to look floody, we start procuring and organizing response materials (tiger dams, sandbags, sand, pumps, etc.) well ahead of time. In my perhaps hazy recollection of 7 years on Council, we have gone so far as to deploy sandbags in the Brunette River area once, and had no river-sourced flooding. So the “annual basis” is around temporarily protecting low-lying areas and prepping for a flood if it is likely to occur, and in no way replaces the medium-and longer term dike upgrades, pump capacity, and storm sewer investments we need to do.

Now, about Climate Change. In general, engineering practice now accounts for it, in as good as they can. Though that means different things for each of the different risks. Add to this a major challenge of estimating or modelling the various impacts Climate Change will have on everything from local storm intensity to snowpacks in Cariboo.

The current models suggest intense rainfall events and rain-on-snow events will become more frequent in our part of the world with climate disruption, both likely to increase the frequency and possible intensity of upland floods and Brunette floods. I guess the upside is that these are likely to be more localized with limited damage (which doesn’t make you feel any better if it is your home or business that is local damaged).

Research from a few years ago (and I honestly have been not keeping up, so this may have changed) suggests that peak freshet flows in the Fraser may actually be lower on average, even as annual average flow goes up a bit over the next 75 years. So floods that meet our design levels may actually become less frequent.

The problem is, we are in the tidal range of the river, and sea level rise will most certainly impact New Westminster. The current Provincial Guidelines are to design dikes for a 50cm increase in sea level, putting dike standards where we previously expected sea level change to get by 2050. More recent research (for example, by the Research Council) suggests we will be past there by 2050. The detail of raising dikes an extra 50 cm is actually not a small one, but at least New West is not alone in this. Which is why many communities (including New West) are calling for a return to basin-wide flood and landuse planning along the shores of the Fraser River Estuary in a FREMP-like model as I linked to above.

The elephant in the room is the worst case scenario, and this is a global concern, not a New Westminster one. If we have 50cm of sea level rise by 2050, we can and are planning for that. Some of that adaptation will be expensive, but we can see how to get there. By 2050, we should have an idea of how to address 1m sea level rise anticipated for 2100, though that will bring new engineering challenges, and perhaps some uncomfortable discussion about triage: what lands we protect, what lands we abandon. However, worst case scenarios for sea level rise past 2100 are dire, and frankly very difficult to plan around. The planet with 3m of sea level rise is a very, very different planet. Most major cities are at least partially inundated, most currently ports are no longer functional. The global economy is not the one we have today. From an engineering perspective, this is not something we can plan for, and the people planning today will not be the ones planning for that eventuality.

This is why we still, while facing inevitable climate change, need to work to reduce the scale and impact of climate disruption. The battle against Climate Change is not over because it is now inevitable, the race is now afoot. Every tonne of carbon we keep out of the atmosphere today is a reduction in inundation we will see post 2100. So in that sense, our long-term flood management plan is probably best seen here.

Resilience

I never remember feeling like this before. The bad stuff is piling up. People and governments are being tested in ways I don’t think anyone anticipated, though it was easily predicted. What’s on my mind is not the bad news happening (there has always been bad news), but in the shift in mindset about the bad news. Maybe it was Trump, maybe it was COVID, maybe it is the algorithms in our news feed or there was truth to the theory that David Bowie was holding the good in the Universe together. I don’t know the cause, but I have been thinking about how a shift in language I noticed might give insight into a change in out collective mindset, and what it means to be in a leadership role at this time.

I am involved in a few organizations that bring Local Governments together. I’m on the Executive of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association. We bring local government leaders together to network, share resources and knowledge, and advocate for the things we need (money and/or regulatory change) to make our communities work better. I am also the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Community Energy Association. We are a not-for profit with a growing professional staff that empower local and regional governments to achieve energy and emissions reductions targets, through planning support, coaching, and actual implementation of programs that move the dial on Climate Action.

In both of those organizations, we spend a lot of time strategizing the best way to serve our communities. We are both receivers and dealers in Buzz Words. In that part of the work, there has been a shift that was so subtle, I didn’t even notice at the time, and was swept up in the change such that I even changed my own language and thinking without noticing. Only with hindsight, and only recently, have I started to think about what we may have lost.

The shift is how we stopped talking about (and building towards) sustainable communities, and are now talking about (and hoping for) resilient communities. Perhaps this is not a revelation. Google “resilience is the new sustainability” and you get an awful lot of hits, most of them of the eco-marketing genre. Resilience is the new buzz, sustainability is passé.

This has been in my mind of late because [gestures to everything happening around us] and how wordshift / mindshift is not limited to those organizations above, but in communications being used by the government in face of overlapping catastrophe. The increased reliance on “resilience” as a planning idea, a community goal, a vision, means something different when you recognize just don’t talk about sustainability any more, it turns to dark thoughts.

Sustainability, use as a buzzword aside, has a clear definition that can be traced back to the Brundtland Report and can be simplified to “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. There is a hope in sustainability. A vision that we can do better right now in ways that will make things better in the future. It’s planning for a prosperous future, like planting a tree under whose shade you may never personally sit. It tells the next generation that we care, that we are cognizant we are passing to them a legacy of our decisions, and we are taking responsibility for that legacy.

Resilience is something different. So shockingly different that it is amazing we have so easily slotted it in to replace sustainability. Though definitions may vary based on context, the one we are talking about in community planning and governance is something akin to “an ability to recover from, or adjust easily to, misfortune or disruption”. This is a different vision, one that sees a lot of bad shit coming down the pike, and we can do nothing to stop it, so hold on tight, and we’ll try to get you some pillows to soften the blow. It is different than hope, and if it isn’t exactly despair, it is at least stripped of optimism.

These days, our emergencies feel like Matryoshka dolls. Last week’s emergencies are sitting within last month’s emergencies, sitting within the emergency that has been going on for two years, surrounded by a decades-long building emergency that is, ultimately, the cause of last week’s emergency. And will be the cause of next week’s.

How did we get here? After decades of talking about, instead of applying, a sustainability lens to addressing that big emergency, we are left with trying to build resiliency to the inevitable emergencies that we know are coming. It is an admission of failure at providing the basic stability of yesterday to those living tomorrow.  If we weren’t successful at the sustainability, why would we believe we are going to be successful at resilience? How did we let this shift happen without us noticing it? Without even comment?

These questions are rhetorical, but the answers are there for us. There is the generational failure where hoarding was seen as the best path to assuring the next generation’s prosperity. There is the neo-liberal outsourcing of solutions for pressing problems to a market that was wholly unequipped to think long-term because we had to be creating something to hoard. There is an intentional erosion of trust in institutions from science to education to governance to journalism that has disarmed the warning systems that should have shown us this future. There is a paucity of leadership, replaced with caffeine hits of populism.

Worse than a lack of vision, there is a fear of vision. A suspicion of vision. We are at the same time clamoring for change and terrified of change. Ideas like “maybe we can fix homelessness by building homes” are seen as radical, fanciful, and ultimately unaffordable. So the change we are getting is the one we could not avoid. At the heart of it all is the feeling that we, one of the most prosperous societies in the history of the globe, can’t afford change. We need to keep digging the hole, because hole-digging is what’s going to pay our way out of this hole. Yes, I’m looking at you, TMX.

If there is hope in this, it is that there are people who see past this. There are leaders in our community, in our province, in our country who are talking about what we can do, not what we can’t. Because shit has to change, and this dread you are feeling doesn’t need to be there. We can’t settle for resilience. Sustainability is not a pipe dream we should let die, it is the survival of all we value, and it is the promise we should be making to the next generation, and to ourselves. It’s the path away from this dread.

It’s the work we have to do, now more than ever.

UBCM 2021

One of the things that kept me too busy to blog last month was the annual Union of BC Municipalities meeting. As with many of my Council colleagues, I attended the meeting virtually, and had a bunch of accessory meetings around the main UBCM meeting events. It’s a little tardy, but here is my slightly Inside Baseball run-down of my extended UBCM week.


Minister Meetings
UBCM presents an annual opportunity for Local Government elected folks (with staff support) to meet with Provincial Government Ministers (and their staff) on pretty much every topic under the sun. Depending on the Local Government and the Minister, this may be asking the senior government for money to support projects, for changes in legislation, for partnership on specific initiatives, to share concerns or to get clarity on programs. As this was a pandemic meeting, and therefore remote, we were not as rushed to meet during and in between UBCM events, so most Minister meetings happened in the week before the actual UBCM conference.

The City had several meetings with Ministers, attended by different members of Council. I was fortunate to be able to meet with Minister of Municipal Affairs, and along with Councilor Trentadue, provide her a summary of some significant Capital Works we have planned- including upgrades to the Massey Theatre and renewing a vision for connecting our Riverfront from the Queensborough to Sapperton Landing. We also talked about a potential for regional coordination of fire boat services.

Though I could not attend, the City also had meetings with other Ministries, including with the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and the Minister of Public Safety in regards to reviewing how we can better address the community impacts of homelessness and addiction and take the load off of Police for this work that really needs a compassionate heath-focused approach.

In my role on the executive of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association, I was also able to meet with Minister of Environment and Climate Change Action Heyman to talk about our members’ recent resolutions regarding the end of CARIP and the need for some more tools to Help Cities Lead and our hopes that the next stage of Clean BC will include these supports.


Resolutions
This session stretched over two days is where Members vote to endorse or not support Resolutions proposed by member municipalities. In sense, this is meant to represent the collective desires of Local Governments across BC, but should usually be seen through the lens of the slightly strange political structure of the UBCM. Any municipality can put a resolution forward, but the Resolution Committee of the (elected) UBCM Executive vets them and prioritizes them for voting, even recommending if Members should vote for specific ones. The voting members are not weighed by population or any such thing – essentially any elected official who registers for the meeting and shows up for the resolution session gets a vote. So eleven possible votes from Vancouver, seven possible votes from New Westminster, five possible votes from Pouce Coupe.

You can read all of the Resolutions here. The City of New Westminster had two resolutions:

NR36: Single-Use Item Regional Regulation

Whereas enactment of bylaws to regulate single-use items by individual municipalities could lead to a mosaic of regulations across the region and in BC, which may lead to confusion and inconsistency for residents and businesses in the sale or distribution of these items; And

whereas greater consistency could be achieved by implementing a regional approach; And

whereas regional districts do not have the authority to establish bylaws or regulations in relation to the sale or distribution of single-use items:

Therefore be it resolved that UBCM request the Province to engage with regional governments to develop legislation which would provide regional districts with the legislative authority to restrict the sale and distribution of single-use items.

NR45: Inclusion of Allied Health Workers to Help Combat the Opioid Crisis

Whereas the opioid crisis and mental health challenges affect at least 1 in 5 BC residents and has been compounded by the COVID-19; And

whereas evidence shows that access to upstream services such as counselling related specialties and physical/occupational therapy decreases opioid use and/or provides better health intervention outcomes, but these are not accessible to many residents as they are not covered and are much too expensive through fee for services; And

whereas communities are currently struggling to meet the needs of our residents, between funding of community programs and increased mental health calls for first responders, which already comprise between 20-30 percent of local government expenditures and are not often the most appropriate service to support people in crisis:

Therefore be it resolved that UBCM request that the Province expand access to and funding for allied health professionals, particularly mental health counselling specialties and physical/occupational therapy related specialties, through expansion of team-based care through not-for-profit delivery including community health centres, available to all BC residents regardless of their immigration status and income, throughout the province; And

be it further resolved that the Province increase support and funding for Peer Navigators as part of the BC Mental Health and Addictions Strategy

Members of the UBCM voted to endorse both of these motions.

I was also there to champion two resolutions from the Lower Mainland LGA:

EB35 Help Cities Lead

Whereas emissions by buildings account for 40-60 percent of a community’s green-house gas (GHG) emissions, and current actions in British Columbia to reduce GHG emissions from buildings are insufficient to achieve the province’s GHG targets for 2030 and 2050; and

Whereas the November 2020 mandate letters to ministers include direction to provincial ministries to move forward with three of the five policy measures included in the Help Cities Lead campaign to drive GHG reduction in British Columbia’s building sector:

Therefore be it resolved that UBCM call upon the provincial government to immediately introduce legislation supporting the three measures identified by Help Cities Lead and addressed in ministerial mandate letters: GHG requirements for new buildings, PACE financing, and home energy labelling; and

Be it further resolved that UBCM call upon the provincial government to introduce empowering legislation to permit local governments who so choose to implement the remaining two measures identified in the Help Cities Lead’s campaign: GHG requirements for existing buildings and building energy benchmarking.

NR32 Renewed Vision for Fraser River Estuary

Whereas the Fraser River Estuary is a diverse and productive ecosystem, supporting over 100 species at risk, including salmon and southern resident killer whales, and, is under increased development pressure and impacts of climate change, including flooding of industrial and agricultural lands, and would benefit from a regional planning approach that balances the needs of the ecosystem, people and the economy; and

Whereas Indigenous people have lived in and stewarded the Fraser River Estuary since time immemorial, and know the various species, habitat, and ecosystems as integral to their existence and identity, and are integral to the planning and governance of the of the Fraser River Estuary:

Therefore be it resolved that UBCM call on the federal and provincial governments to allocate the necessary resources and appropriately fund and support a renewed Fraser River Estuary Management planning process that will collectively protect the ecosystem of the Estuary through inter-agency collaboration; and

be it further resolved that the planning process includes, but is not limited to: First Nations, federal government and provincial governments.

Both of these Resolutions were also endorsed by the Membership.


Conference

The other part of the UBCM is all of the stuff you would usually have at a conference: Workshops, panel discussions, and Plenary sessions where we get speeches from important people, from John Horgan to Rick Mercer. I would have to say one difference this UBCM compared to some previous events was the openness of the NDP cabinet members all the way up to the Premier, even taking Questions from the (digitally) assembled crowd, instead of just doing a speech. It may be my bias, or it may have some relationship to our coming out of the peri-Pandemic times and the virtual nature of the meeting, but I get the sense that the shine is not off the NDP (yet?) for most local government officials, and the reception to them was warmer than in previous years, and with previous governments.

Unusually, I was on a panel this year (see photo above) talking about the Heat Dome event, what went wrong locally, and what it means for decision making ahead. I also attended a few other sessions, including a Town Hall led by the Minister for Local Government with a few other members of cabinet on Building Resilient Communities (which was frustratingly neoliberal in its definition of the problem, and its proposed solutions), a Workshop on Climate Action and the Municipal Pension Plan that turned out to be an hour of excuses about why they won’t do the fossil fuel divestment many of their members want. (Ugh).


The 2021 UBCM was virtual. The organization put together a really strong on-line portal to access the event, and it ran super smooth. The public face of the platform was so seamless and functional, it must have only been possible with a bunch of sweat, stress, and chaos behind the (digital) curtain. So kudos to the organizers for achieving that, and i hope the folks who made it work get the thanks they deserve.

Although I missed having those important informal social connections with my Local Government cohort from across the province, I did walk away from UBCM, once again, recharged and excited about the work ahead. So many leaders are doing incredible work to support their communities, finding local approaches to global problems, it makes sharing both the successes and the frustrations so important. Especially over the last 18 months, it has been easy to get discouraged or disheartened about the challenges. Challenges seem to be piling up everywhere, from Vancouver to Pouce Coupe. But knowing there are so many people dedicating themselves to making their corner of the province work better, be safer, more prosperous, and more just, gets me back in the mood that we can make a difference.

Heat Dome

We learned another new term this year. High-amplitude waves in the Jetstream, Rex Blocks, compressed high pressure zones: the details are complicated to us common folk, but well understood to atmospheric scientists. One thing is clear – this Heat Dome anomaly is one we are likely to see more often as anthropogenic climate change becomes anthropogenic climate disruption.

But I don’t want to talk about the causes, I want to talk about what happened, and what we do now.

Here in New Westminster, dozens of people died. We don’t have a complete accounting yet, and the coroner will no doubt report out in a few months when the horror of the situation has passed, but there may have been more than 40 “excess deaths” in New Westminster in the 4-day period of highest heat. Neighbours of ours, residents in our community. People who died in their home because it was too hot for their body to cope, and because they couldn’t get to help, or didn’t know they needed help. Or (alas) help was not available.

There were a few stories in the news, but aside from the horrific loss of Lytton, the news cycle around the Heat Dome has already begun to pass, which frightens me. More disasters are pushing it out of our mind. Is this the “New Normal” of living though COVID and an ongoing poisoned drug supply crisis – us becoming desensitized to mass death stories? With 900+ COVID deaths in our Health Region, 100+ opioid deaths in our community, does a few dozen avoidable heat-related deaths register? Do we even know how to get angry about this?

We talked about this in Council last week, and it come up in the UBCM executive meeting with the Minister of Municipal Affairs I attended on Friday. As we are contemplating the immediate impacts of wildfires, and the further-reaching effects of wildfire smoke, the conversation about what went wrong during the heat emergency is feeling lost in dealing in this week’s emergency, which will lose time to next week’s emergency. I lament that is what climate disruption looks like in practice.

We will get a report in Council on how we can update our emergency planning, and the Coroner will likely issue a report on provincial and regional responses, but I want to concentrate for now (and sorry, it has taken me some time to think about how to write this) on what happened here, in our community, especially in my neighbourhood of the Brow of the Hill, where many “sudden deaths” occurred.

New West Fire and Rescue and New Westminster Police responded to an unprecedented number of health emergencies and sudden death calls. We know the ambulance service failed – they simply could not dispatch people to calls fast enough, as there were not enough ambulances and crews available. This meant people at 911 couldn’t leave calls, and lines got backed up, causing E-Comm to fail. Firefighters were challenged to keep up, as they could not pass medical calls over the ambulances that were not arriving. As our fire trucks are not medical transports, Fire crews took the unprecedented step of calling taxis and having a member accompany patients to Hospital in that cab, so crews and equipment could move onto the next call, leaving our Firefighters under-staffed as many had to wait in the hospital for patients to be admitted, because the emergency room was slammed. Even as fire and police struggled to keep up and attend to “sudden death” calls, the coroner service phone lines were overwhelmed and at one point stopped responding.

It was a cascading failure, a demonstration we were simply not ready, as a City and as a Province. People died, leaving behind families and neighbours traumatized by the lack of response. I am afraid first responders were equally traumatized, as they had to operate in a broken and failing system that didn’t allow them to do the work they are trained for and dedicated to doing – protect and comfort the residents they serve. Instead, they spent three days in the stifling heat surrounded by the suffering and death of people they wanted to help. I cannot imagine, but once again, they deserve not just our recognition and gratitude, but a response  – a way to fix this so they don’t have to go through it again.

Like many of you, I heard anecdotes about people who were in dangerous situations, and people who helped them out. A community member encountering an elderly man on the street who was disoriented after shopping for himself and his house-bound wife, with no access to cooling centre support because information was not available in his native language. A neighbour who saw a hyperthermic woman sitting in the driver’s seat of a car parked in front of his house, and took her in to cool in his basement overnight because she didn’t know of anywhere else to go and her apartment was not sustainable. Every neighbour-helping-neighbour story reminds us of the importance of community and compassion, but overshadows the story of the many people who surely fell through the cracks and were not lucky enough to have a good Samaritan help them through.

The City has a Heat Emergency plan, and it was invoked. Cooling centres were opened, communications around how to recognize and address heat stress and hyperthermia were distributed in the traditional way, outreach to impacted communities was initiated. City staff in community centres and first responders were prepared to operationalize the plan, carried water and ice and expected to be helping people. It turned out to not be nearly enough. I can be critical of the 911, Ambulance, and Coroner service failures and ask the Province to get this shit figured out right away, but we need to recognize at the same time the failures here at the local level.

First off, we learned (much like the rest of the Lower Mainland) that a plan that works for 32 degrees does not work for 40 degrees. This Heat Dome event was exacerbated by the high overnight lows – for a couple of days, temps never got below 25 degrees at night, so there was no opportunity for apartments to cool down or for people to get a comfortable sleep and build resilience. Cooling Centres that operate from 10:00am- 8:00pm are simply not enough in this situation. We have to figure out how to provide 24 hour centres, and how to staff them. We can also expand the opportunity for outdoor cooling with fountains and misters and tents, and the logistics of making them safe and accessible.

We also were not as effective as we need to be at communicating the seriousness of the heat situation. This was not a “regular” heat emergency, it was something different, and we should have seen that coming and taking measures to tell the community that. There is a language barrier (several, actually) we need to overcome, but there is also the physical barriers to getting information to the front doors of people who live in apartments, to getting information to people in the Uptown and Downtown commercial areas, and encouraging people to connect with their neighbours and the people in their buildings. Indeed, we may even want to regulate that building managers check in with every tenant at least once a day during a heat emergency, and provide resources to residents. This may be as lifesaving as regulating fire alarms.

This is so much our climate chickens coming home to roost. Our Emergency Planning (and this is reflected in the Emergency Response exercises performed in the region, where these plans are tested and refined) has traditionally centred around floods and earthquakes. The SARS outbreak added pandemic planning to that suite (which we were fortunate to have as we began our response to COVID) and Lac-Mégantic caused us to update our rail hazardous incident planning. We have cold temperature and warm temperature response plans, but the current scale of climate disruption is clearly going to lead us to re-think what a regional emergency is. Heat Domes and smoke events like last summer are going to need a new approach.

It is hard for government to admit we failed, but there is no doubt we did here, as a City and as a Province. We should have been better prepared, and we need to be better prepared. We need to communicate better and differently, and we need to assure First Responders are resourced to do the job of supporting people in dangerous times. We have work to do.

Lower Mainland LGA 2021

Last week was the annual Lower Mainland LGA conference and AGM. It was all (alas) virtual this year, but it was still a great event. As a VP of the Lower Mainland LGA, I’m completely unbiased, and am going to use my platform to talk about how great it was, and to lament how I miss my friends and even a few of my enemies.

The Lower Mainland Local Government Association grew under the umbrella of the Union of BC Municipalities, and along with 4 other local government associations in BC, we work to bring local government leaders together for networking and education, to discuss topics important to local governments, and to lobby senior governments through a “resolutions” process on issues impacting our work.

Our 2021 conference was on-line, and as such the networking part was suboptimal, but we did have great educational sessions and a resolutions session. The theme for the conference was, perhaps optimistically, “the work ahead”. As we started developing that 6 months ago, we recognized that everything has been about COVID for the last year, and hoping we would be on the wane of the Pandemic, we wanted to concentrate on the most pressing needs for local government in the post-COVID world, and perhaps use the lessons of COVID to frame how we could address those other crises / urgent issues.

There were four main educational sessions, all with expert panels and Q&A. We were honoured to have Bob Joseph speak on UNDRIP and what it means in a local government perspective. We had panel including public health professionals, drug policy experts, and local government folks talking about the opioid crisis and policy levers local governments can apply to reduce the harm. We had a session in bringing back a better, more sustainable form of tourism, and a session on mobilizing local government action on the Climate Emergency. We also had two pre-recorded sessions on envisioning the Post-Pandemic workplace and priorities in Asset Management – both very “inside baseball”, but really important topics to our crowd. And though much of the program was interactive, we also spent a lot of time looking at panels like this:

This year, we had two “book club” discussions, less formal chats with authors about their new books. I had the opportunity to interview and moderate a discussion with Seth Klein on his book “A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency”, and Mayor Jack Crompton of Whistler moderated a discussion with Megan Elper Wood on her book “Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet”.

After greetings from the Premier, and a presentation and Q&A from the Minister for Local Government, we had a resolutions session, which for many Lower Mainland LGA members is the highlight of the conference. There were 32 resolutions, and you can read them all here. 30 of those resolutions were endorsed by the membership, some after a bit of debate. The two defeated were a resolution to re-consider the name of British Columbia to a non-colonial name, and a resolution to ask the Province to legislatively provide local governments more flexibility to adjust their local election voting systems (i.e. ranked ballots) to better suit the needs on the ground in each municipality. This last one was pretty divisive, and surprisingly lost on a tie vote(!) which I think (and this is only my opinion) reflects that some saw the resolution as being perhaps too ambiguous in its drafting, opening up local government elections for too much political manipulation. That said, I suspect if we had a proper in-person meeting, this debate (along with the “Renaming BC” one) would have been much more lively and interesting, as there are good ideas in there that are not well summarized in a short resolution.

New Westminster was a sponsor of one Executive Resolution (Help Cities Lead by increasing tools available to local governments in regulating GHG emissions of buildings which I mentioned here) and one membership resolution (Giving regional governments the authority to regulate the sale and use of single-use plastics, which I mentioned here). Both were endorsed by the membership.

And after all that business, I still really miss my Local Government friends from across the region. The virtual conference was interesting and educational, but the chance to sit around a table at breakfast or with beers and talk about what’s new in their community, how they are addressing a familiar issue, their troubles and their successes, is really valuable. There are some dedicated, serious leaders in our region, from Chilliwack to Squamish to Delta, and I learn from them every time we meet. Here’s looking forward to 2022, when we will have hopefully truly put COVID behind us.

Bold Steps 2021

Another great news story coming out of our Council meeting last week (and to contrast from my generally sour recent social media persona, because there is a lot to be frustrated by out there right now) was an update on the City’s Bold Steps Work Plan for 2021.

Like some other jurisdictions, the City of New Westminster declared a Climate Emergency. Like a sub-set of those jurisdictions, we are taking concrete actions in addressing that Climate Emergency, in practice and in policy. Far from being an empty declaration, it was immediately followed by Council asking staff to come up with an actionable plan and viable targets – 2050 targets to meet the IPCC goal that our Country agreed to, and more important 2030 targets that require immediate action to achieve.

I feel strongly those shorter term targets are important because they require us to act now, to put the necessary changes in to our work plans and budgets in 2021 if we hope to get there. It will be hard to hold me and my Council cohort accountable for a 2050 climate target missed (As a Mayor entering his 7th term, I’ll be untouchable!), but we will know if we are on track for 2030 in the next couple of years, and will know if our actions today will get us there.

We have talked quite a bit already about the 7 Bold Steps the City as put forward, but there is a nuance in how they exist within two overlapping magisteria (h/t Stephen J Gould) known as the Corporate Energy and Emissions Reduction Strategy (CEERS – what the City does with its own operations) and a Community Energy and Emissions Plan (CEEP – what the residents and businesses in town do). If we have 90% control over the former, we only have 10% control over the latter, and it is the much bigger nut to crack. That said, working with senior governments, we can create the right conditions for the entire community to adapt to a low-GHG economy.

The report we were provided outlines the many actions our Climate Action team and other City Departments will be undertaking in 2021. I’ll take the opportunity here to share some brief highlights from each of the 7 Bold Steps:

Carbon Free Corporation. Obviously, there are two big parts of this: our fleet and our buildings. We are replacing the CGP (our highest-emission building) and are shooting for a Zero Carbon standard for the replacement, while prioritization of retrofits and upgrades for the rest of the building stock is an ongoing project. The Green Fleet roadmap will allow us to shift to GHG-free vehicles as they become available, and assure we have the infrastructure to support them across our organization.

Car Light Community. The biggest part of this work will be shifting more spending to support Active Transportation (pedestrian safety improvements, transit support, and greenways), but it also means updating our development planning to assure we are building communities where active transportation is a viable option for more people.

Carbon Free Homes and Buildings. Two ways we can support lower-emission buildings in the City are through updating or accelerating our Step Code implementation to require that new buildings meet higher standards, and continuing to support the great work of Energy Save New West. (Did you know ESNW one of the longest running and most comprehensive community energy efficiency and GHG-reduction programs in Canada?) to help residents and businesses upgrade their own buildings and save money on energy. We are also supporting the Help Cities Lead campaign, asking the Provincial Government to give local government more tools to encourage and support a more efficient building stock.

Pollution Free Vehicles. Our biggest role here will be to support as best we can adoption of electric vehicles (e-cars, e-bikes, e-whatever comes next) by making sure we have adequate public charging, and support the installation of chargers in all new buildings.

Carbon-Free Energy. The inevitable shift from GHG-intensive energy sources to low-carbon electric power puts the city in a unique situation, with our own electrical utility. We need to update our electrical infrastructure to facilitate that, starting with our Advanced Metering Infrastructure project.

Robust Urban Forest. You may have noticed boulevard trees popping up across the Brow of the hill neighbourhood especially, we are going to keep moving ahead on that commitment, along with trying to find more opportunities to protect trees through development.

Quality Public Realm. This is one aspect of the Climate Action plan that includes adaptation to the climate change already inevitable even if we globally meet our 2050 goals. We will be doing climate risk mapping to inform that adaptation, along with other programs that may not seem like climate action (like improving road safety around schools) but is actually climate action (because it makes it more likely people won’t drive to school).

There is other work that spans all 7 Bold Steps, and indeed many of the things above overlap between steps. It is important that we have included these actions in our 5-year financial plan, which means our budget matches our priorities. But even more important, every department in the City has a role, and knows its role. The next 10 years are going to be transformational and require a culture change in how the City operates. Having everyone on board and padding the same direction is the only way we will succeed.

Defense

I have written a few times about the Trans Mountain Pipeline project. I have strong opinions about it that have developed through the years.

At some point in my past I worked for an organization where my job was to provide technical support to an intervenor to the National Energy Board approval process, so I have way more knowledge about this project that is probably healthy. Yes, I have read the application, yes I have read the business case, yes I have watched the story of the pipeline evolve. My opinions about the project have been formed by my emersion immersion in this process, not Twitter memes or PostMedia opinion pieces.

I continue to assert it is the wrong project at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons. It will threaten the ecology of important parts of the province, including one of the most ecologically sensitive parts of New Westminster. The business case for the pipeline is a house of cards with a foundation of bullshit. If realized at the scale that the proponents aspire towards, it will blow Canada past any semblance of the commitment we made to the world in Paris. It is an embarrassing ode to a failed economic model and an icon to lack of leadership.

Fair to say, I’m not a fan.

Just last week, the reactionary Marxist hippies in the Parliamentary Budget Office told the Parliament of Canada and the Prime Minister that the pipeline is unlikely to meet its financial targets if the country plans to meet its climate targets. These were the climate targets that the Prime Minister feigned to make “law” just a few weeks before. I am not one to say “we need to choose between the environment and the economy”, because that is a false dichotomy too often used to delay climate action, but it is clear that if we are going to meet 2050 climate targets, we need to stop investing in the 1950 model of “the economy” (take that as a warning, Massey Bridge Replacement proponents). The time for special pleadings is over.

There is other news around the TMX recently, from their workers imperiling others on New Westminster city streets to the workers imperiling themselves on the worksite, but I’m not above kicking this mangy cur when it is down. So when the BNSF police (yes, a multi-national corporation with headquarters in Houston has armed police with the power of arrest roaming the streets of British Columbia) served an injunction on land defenders that have been placing themselves in the way of the deforestation of riparian habitat in the Brunette River, it is perhaps surprising that only one reporter bothered to file a story about it.

Health researcher and physician Dr. Takaro and a group of concerned citizen have been occupying space near the New West / Burnaby / Coquitlam border since the summer. The pipeline project seems to have tolerated them for a few months, but removing the trees they are occupying now appears to be on the critical path of getting the oil to tidewater, so the injunction was served last week and the Corporate armed forces of BNSF and CN, with support from the RCMP, tore down the camp an forcefully evicted the residents. As a response, the land defenders and Dr. Takaro have filed a request to the BC Supreme Court to have the injunction set aside, citing the flawed NEB process that empowered the approval in the first place.

All this as preamble to say I am proud out City Council is clear in its support for the land defenders, as our concerns in regards to this pipeline and its location in the Burnette River riparian zone have not been addressed – not in the original NEB process rammed through by the Harper Conservatives, and not in the fake “review” offered by the feckless Trudeau Conservatives once they gained control of the process. Council released this statement today:

New Westminster Council continues to be concerned about the location of the new Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (“TMX”) within the sensitive riparian area of the Brunette River;

As an intervener in the flawed National Energy Board process that led to the approval of the TMX project, the City of New Westminster has not been satisfied that TMX sufficiently addresses the imminent and long-term risks to the Brunette River, its unique habitat, and species at risk, including recently-rejuvenated local populations of chum and coho salmon, and the endangered Nooksack dace;

New Westminster Council continues to be concerned that the TMX project is at odds with Canada’s regulated commitments under the Paris Agreement to reduce global Greenhouse Gas emissions and limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius;

New Westminster Council stands in support of the land defenders currently acting to protect fragile riparian habitat near the Brunette River through peaceful protest and occupation of federally regulated lands, and ask that the injunction preventing this action be set aside.

CEERS 2020

We had a report at the September 28th Council meeting that I mentioned in my blog, but skipped past the details of, because I think it was too important a report to bury in a long boring Council Report. This is the Corporate Energy and Emissions Reduction Strategy (CEERS).

The City has two roles in addressing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting the Paris Agreement goals that the City, the province, and the nation have all stated they intend to meet. One is making it possible for our community (residents, businesses, industry) to meet the goals, which is addressed through a Community Energy and Emissions Plan (“CEEP”). The second is managing our own corporate emissions, those created by the City in operating its own buildings and fleet. The CEERS is our updated plan to deal with this second part.

This CEERS replaces an older plan that was adopted in 2008 and reduced our emission by 12% over the last decade. CEERS 2020 outlines the strategy to get us to our newly stated and ambitious goals – reduce emissions to 45% below our 2010 baseline by 2030 as the first step towards a 100% reduction by 2050. I think the most important part of any climate policy is that we set goals within a viewable horizon – ones we need to take action on *now* to achieve, because as bold as 100% by 2050 is, the 30 year timeframe gives too much cover to those willing to kick climate action down the road.

This Strategy lays out a clear path to get our building and fleet emissions to our 2030 goal. Replacing the Canada Games Pool with a zero-carbon building will be a huge step, but there are 13 other buildings in the City that would see energy and emissions reduction measures soon. This would reduce our building emissions by 55%, and would pay us back in energy savings within 10 years. We are also going to be taking a much more aggressive approach to electrification of our vehicle fleet to reduce those emissions by 30%, both by buying electric vehicles, and by updating our infrastructure to provide charging to these vehicles. With these two strategies and continued improvement on smaller-emission sources like street lighting and wastewater, we can get to our 45% goal by 2030.

That doesn’t mean we will be done in 2030. We will then have harder work to do to find a path to carbon-neutrality that we are aspiring towards in our Bold Step #1. Things like deep retrofits of some other buildings in the City, exploring alternate energy sources (renewable gas, hydrogen, solar, etc.) and creating an offset program through reforestation or other strategies. We can also anticipate that technology will catch up to our goals in the decade ahead, making the next steps a little easier. For example, it is simply not viable to have all-electric or hydrogen fuel cell fire truck fleet today, but we will be relying on those types of changes to emerge after 2030 when those deeper reductions are needed. So if we are going beyond just picking low-hanging fruit now, we are still harvesting the riper fruit.

There is a lot of great policy in here aside from just purchasing changes. We are going to start internally pricing carbon at $150/Tonne. This means we will account for our internal emissions, and use that value to inform our purchasing programs for new equipment. This value (about $650,000/yr based on 2020 emissions) will go into a Climate Reserve Fund to help pay for carbon reduction projects. This both provides internal incentive for departments to find lower-emission approaches (as the cost comes out of your departments budget) and provides us a clear fund and budget line item to apply to emergent projects.

Overall, the cost of implementing this plan is about $13.5M, though much of it is already included in our 5-year capital plan. To put that number into context, we annually spend about $700,000 on fossil fuels (gasoline, diesel, propane) for our current fleet, and energy to heat and service our two dozen buildings (pools, rec centres, City Hall, etc.) is about $1.2 Million per year. It doesn’t take complicated math to recognize that reductions in these costs will rapidly offset the capital costs invested today. With interest rates as low as they are, and senior governments telegraphing their intent to support this type of green infrastructure renewal with grants, the time is now. The City Council of 2030 will be saving a lot of money because of the commitment we make today.

We are going to get there. We can get there. To delay any further would be irresponsible.

Projections

I want to talk about this picture.

Because it triggered for me something that has been banging around in the back of my head for a few years, and I have not really known how to relate it. When it arrived a few years ago thoughts like this were too catastrophic to fit into our world view. Maybe our world view is changing, but I’m not sure about it.

At the time, I was on the Metro Vancouver Utility Committee, which is a committee of local elected officials that get together to discuss the operations of the water and sewer infrastructure of the region and review capital plans for the Metro Vancouver Board. (This has been replaced after the 2018 election with separate Liquid Waste and Water committees). As was our mandate, we were doing long-term planning for the region’s water supply. Really long-term, like 50 – 100 years.

This is important, because major water infrastructure like our three big reservoirs, the dams that support them, and the pipes and pumps and stuff that move a billion litres of water around every day is really expensive stuff. Once installed, it may be in the ground for a century or longer. In a rapidly-growing region with land constraints like Greater Vancouver, big decisions about how, where, and when we invest in this infrastructure are important.

To inform that planning, we needed to include projections about climate change. Beyond just being hotter in the summer, and the potential for less snowpack, we need to consider impacts on ENSO and other global climate systems that may drastically shift when and how much rain falls in our watersheds so we are capable of storing the right amount. We had science types who study this stuff in universities for a living providing models for us.

The subject matter experts were able to, I think, provide a pretty good summary of what we know, what we don’t know, and what we don’t know we don’t know about the climate are we project to 2100, about 80 years in the future. There were several chuckles around the table from comfortable elected people “I’ll be dead then! Har Har!” which is its own telling moment, but I digress.

Scientists being science types, they spent a lot of time talking about uncertainty. There are a variety of models, none of them perfect, and subtle adjustments of what we put into the model can have big impacts over decades. Will the world meet the Paris Agreement goals? Will the economic growth of the last decades continue? Will Elon Musk invent the Mr. Fusion? All of these are external things climate scientists cannot predict, but they can make projections based on different amounts of greenhouse gasses going into the atmosphere. From those they can infer the impact on temperatures, sea and air circulation patterns, feedbacks positive and negative. They have several different models, and into each they can add several emissions scenarios, and they end up with scores or hundreds of different results.

These projected results are not random, though. They cluster. They reinforce each other as often as they differ. In the report we were given, there were three distinct clusters in projecting the temperature impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Greater Vancouver. As is the wont of planners and engineers, they hope for the “best case”, plan around the “middle case”, and have contingencies for the “worst case”.

Looking at a “middle case” for 2100, they made some iterations around our watersheds, how the hydrology of them will be impacted, how spring rains vs. summer rains impact storage need. All to figure how we will assure we can supply water to a City of (I can’t remember the number now, but for the sake of moving the discussion along let’s say it was) 4 Million people. Great, we put our stake in the ground, and have something to plan around. If things change, we will adjust, but this is the point we adjust from.

I put my hand up. “If the annual temperature increases by that much, what does that mean for the trees we are protecting in the watersheds? Can they tolerate that change?”

The answer was “outside of our current scope”. Not the topic of this discussion. We moved on to reservoir design options.

But it doesn’t take much research to discover that, even in the “middle scenario” provided, we are looking at temperatures that are outside of the habitat range of the Douglas fir, the western hemlock, the sitka spruce, the red cedar. The trees will likely die.

Sitting in Metro Vancouver’s offices, you could look over at the North Shore Mountains. It was hard to imagine what Vancouver will look like in 2100 with those trees dead or dying. To most of us, those green mountainsides reaching to rocky peaks define Vancouver. So much so that the City has expensive and complicated “view cone” programs to assure that people’s view of that green expanse is protected by policy. I’m not sure anyone is really thinking about what it means if they are gone.

Maybe it’s too hard to imagine. Just another bummer on the pile, and I’ll be dead by then. Or maybe our current sepia-toned sky should prompt us to imagine why we have made this choice.


Thanks to Mr. Mathew Bond for permission to lament over your photo.

Protectors

There is something else that has been going on in New West (and right next door in Burnaby) for several weeks that is not getting nearly enough attention. There have been a small group of people, led by Dr. Tim Takaro, leading a peaceful occupation of the Trans Mountain Pipeline right-of-way through the Brunette River riparian area. If you live in New West, or if you are concerned about the role your federal government plays in addressing Canada’s shameful climate change legacy, you should care.

It is possible in 2020 that many of us are feeling “protest fatigue”. After the Climate Strikes of last fall, the actions in support of the Wet’suwet’en in the spring, the seemingly unstoppable 24-hour news of protest and counter-protest around Black Lives Matter and Indigenous rights movements, the nation south of us in such a downward spiral, all while we are living under the fogbank of a global pandemic – how many people have capacity for another call to action or protest against injustice right now? For anyone who even gives even the littlest shit about the state of the world and future generations, it can all feel crushing. Not because this doesn’t matter, but because everything freaking matters.

Some people I talk to about this are lamenting (or sometimes celebrating) that the pipeline is fait accompli. The Federal Government has dropped its your money into it, the pipe is bought, the court cases are exhausted. Even as the dark reality of questionable financial viability dawns on us, and the guy who bought the pipeline slinks from office to find other opportunities to mess with global capital, the sunk cost fallacy is pushing us forward into a $12.5 Billion investment in stranded carbon assets. But that’s global macroeconomics and climate denialism, what does that have to do with us here in little old New West?

As I have talked about before, the new Trans Mountain pipeline is going to move more than half a million barrels a day of oil products through the Brunette River, just meters from the New Westminster border, and just before the Brunette flows into New Westminster and discharges to the Fraser immediately upstream of our waterfront. I say the new Trans Mountain Pipeline, because here in the Lower Mainland, they are not “twinning” or “expanding” the existing pipeline, they are routing a second pipeline kilometers from the existing one (which will still pump away as it always does). The new route passes through the most sensitive riparian area of the Brunette: a river that a small group of underappreciated local heroes spent decades bringing back from an industrial sewer to a place that hosts spawning salmon again. The new pipeline is proposed to dig through the very riparian area that supports those salmon and a rich diversity of other flora and fauna, one of the few remaining natural streams in the urban sprawl of the Burrard Peninsula.

So here we are again, another small group of dedicated people protecting a legacy for generations. With time a’ticking and construction equipment staging, they are occupying the space in the hopes that their presence will prevent the felling of trees and clearing of brush and digging of trenches. There has not been much mention of this protest that has been going for more than a month, aside from a couple of early news stories when Dr. Takaro initially went into the trees.

The protest came to the attention of New West council as the occupants were using lower Hume Park for staging some of the activity, it being the nearest open public assembly place to the protest site. Although the actual occupied site is in Burnaby, the crossing of North Road and the Brunette River is a jurisdictionally-challenging spot, where Burnaby, New West, and Coquitlam meet and the federal railways have some policing powers (don’t start with me about how multinational corporations have armed policing powers in Canada –that’s another rant for another time). So it is worthwhile to point out that the three municipalities have taken varying approaches to the TMX expansion.

New Westminster was an intervenor in the Environmental Assessment, strongly opposed the project and its re-location to the Brunette watershed, and have supported legal challenges to the project. Burnaby’s opposition to the project has taken them to the Supreme Court of Canada. Coquitlam has said “show us the money”.

As a City Council, we have received no formal correspondence from the pipeline project team since the federal government took over the project. After formally opposing it for a list of technical reasons in 2017, we received a letter in response from (then) Minister Sohi in 2018 letting us know they received our letter, but they had just bought the entire project, so they are moving ahead.

My reasons for opposition to this project are informed by my participation in the original Environmental Assessment process in a technical role, and honed by my role as an elected official in an impacted community. I have been at this long enough that I remember the Harper-led federal government listening to our concerns before telling us they don’t care, then tearing up the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and Fisheries Act to prove the point. In hindsight, that seems more honest than the Trudeau-led federal government lying to us about accountability, promising to end subsidizing oil and gas, and then throwing our chips down on the biggest oil company bailout in Canadian history. I wonder where Minister Sohi is now, after so much was invested in trying to protect his lonely Alberta seat.

Anyway, I’m ranting.

The protest is ongoing in the woods just west of the North Road, south of the Highway 1 overpass, but you may see a few people spending time staging or handing out information in lower Hume Park. Drop by and say Hi if you are in the area, send them some support if you like. Maybe you might want to let your elected representatives know if you think building a pipeline to expedite bitumen sand development in the face of a Climate Emergency is a thing you want them to spend your money on in 2020, or whether you value healthy salmon habitat in your community.