On the morning of Dec. 17, 2012, a rare king tide pushed the Pacific Ocean over the sea wall by Kitsilano pool, flooding the popular recreation area and causing the nearby beach to disappear.
While the water soon retreated and caused no lasting damage, the extreme tide served as a wake-up call for local officials. With sea level expected to increase by half a metre midway through this century, the extreme tides seen that morning could be the normal water level in only 30 years.
City staff are calling for federal aid to help Vancouver prepare for the long-term impact of climate change.
While funding for expensive new infrastructure will be required over the next few decades, officials say Ottawa doesn’t support even inexpensive, current planning efforts. The lack of financial aid is compounded by a lack of organization in the federal bureaucracy, according to deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston.
“There is no clear funding program to ask. It’s not even clear what department to ask,” said Mr. Johnston, who was poached from Chicago to head the city’s environmental efforts. “If we are going to protect our residents, infrastructure and economy we need a one-stop shop in the federal government for this.”
On May 22, the federal government signed a 10-year deal to continue turning over parts of the federal gas-tax fund to B.C. cities, totalling $2.7-billion by 2024. While traditional projects such as roads, airports and arenas are covered, the money can also be spent on disaster mitigation.
According to the Union of B.C. Municipalities, climate change is not an “eligible project category” under the new federal funding structure.
While flooding last year in Calgary and Toronto has served as a graphic preview of a world facing more extreme weather, Vancouver faces a grimmer situation. The city is one of the world’s most exposed ports to damages from sea-level rise, with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ranking Vancouver 15th out of 136 large port cities for future risks.
Current flooding projections show a dire future for much of the Lower Mainland. By the end of the century, Vancouver’s airport, as well as large swaths of Richmond and Surrey, could look like the Netherlands, lying below sea level and protected only by an extensive network of dikes.
Aaron Jasper says he worries about the choices that his successors will face as chair of Vancouver’s park board. With his current term ending, Mr. Jasper will not stand for re-election. He says his budgets have been stretched by projects to refurbish existing infrastructure. During his time heading the parks board he says conversations have turned increasingly to climate change and the need for new infrastructure.
“I don’t envy the challenges future boards will face,” he said on the phone as his one-year-old son cries in the background.
“Having children brings urgency to it. I grew up here and I wonder if I’ll be telling my kids what it was once like when we had a beach at Kitsilano.”
At high tide, the water now laps just below the concrete sea wall in Kitsilano. Mr. Jasper expects talk will soon turn to building up the existing walls. Some in the parks department have begun talking openly about the need for an unpopular extension of the sea wall beyond its current terminus near the Kitsilano Pool.
Released two weeks ago, the U.S. National Climate Assessment raised alarm over the fast retreat of the glaciers across B.C. The glaciers in the Rocky Mountains are expected to disappear by the end of the century. According to a University of Victoria study the smaller glaciers on Vancouver Island will disappear completely within 25 years.
To face a changing environment, Vancouver has already started a number of changes to the city’s permitting process. Generators must be moved to higher floors in large buildings and the city now “strongly recommends” that oceanfront construction be one metre higher – current provincial estimates show a one-metre increase in sea levels by the end of the century.
However larger investments will require federal aid. “Whether it be building dikes, flood gates or raising streets, there will be clear investments required,” Mr. Johnston said.