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With sea level rise accelerating, Liverpool, N.S.’s local government hired engineering consultant CBCL Ltd. to explore options for protecting itself. But the municipality rejected all of CBCL’s suggestions, saying they’re simply not affordable

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A parking lot is flooded in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, in 2018.Ken Veinot/The Globe and Mail

For generations, the waterfront in Liverpool, N.S., has been a gathering place. There you’ll find the tourist bureau, Centennial Park, a statue of local hero and boxing champion Tiger Warrington, the local brewery, a small farmers’ market, and 125 parking spaces serving downtown businesses. But all of it is threatened by rising sea levels, and this small town is waving a white flag.

Local tidal elevations have risen by about 10 centimetres since the turn of the century. The parking lot now floods on an almost annual basis, typically during storm surges. An assortment of low-lying buildings are regularly inundated, so some owners keep sandbags handy. But with sea level rise accelerating, such measures are woefully inadequate.

A few years ago, the local government (the Region of Queens Municipality) did what many leading thinkers on climate change adaptation recommend: It hired engineering consultant CBCL Ltd. to explore options for protecting itself. Completed in 2019 but not released until earlier this year, CBCL’s report suggested erecting a sea wall. Other possibilities included raising the parking lot, or demolishing and relocating vulnerable buildings.

What the municipality did next, though, wasn’t exactly textbook: It rejected all of those options. Darlene Norman, the mayor, said they’re simply not affordable.

“If money were no object, then Liverpool’s harbour would probably end up looking like something from the Netherlands,” she said. But $9.1-million, the proposed seawall’s estimated cost, “is beyond our means.” And Liverpool is but one of four communities within the region, Ms. Norman added. She’s not keen to set the precedent of purchasing and demolishing vulnerable properties, given how many others exist.

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Hell Bay Brewing Co. has resided for the past eight years in an old waterfront building in Liverpool.Matthew McClearn/The Globe and Mail

There’s no shortage of advice regarding what coastal communities should do to prepare for rising sea levels. In his book Moving to Higher Ground, published this year, U.S. oceanographer John Englander emphasized that sea level rise is inevitable and unstoppable, which “should enable and inspire bold planning.” He recommends 30-year or 100-year master plans involving co-ordinated changes to building codes, zoning and infrastructure plans. Long-term planning is crucial: It’s less disruptive and expensive to raise streets and structures once – say, by one metre – rather than raising them three times in smaller increments.

“Without a cohesive plan that addresses the issue at the community level, even the best efforts will end up underwater,” he wrote. “It is time to start engineering for a sea level that will be dramatically higher.”

That process seems to be gathering steam. Late last year, the federal government committed to developing a national adaptation strategy as part of its new plan to address climate change. Meanwhile, novel solutions are beginning to emerge to address rising sea levels, such as connecting barrier islands to form huge flood walls. Amphibious and floating homes have been suggested. Reintroducing wetlands and mangrove forests are among the “natural” solutions gaining popularity.

But when small communities consider what they can actually afford, the answer is often: very little. And by merely considering its options, Queens has set itself apart from many of its peers. Brian Eddy, a research scientist at Natural Resources Canada, pointed to a survey of more than 200 coastal communities in Newfoundland and Labrador conducted a few years ago. “Only a handful were doing any kind of adaptation planning,” he said.

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At first, Hell Bay Brewing Co.'s property flooded perhaps once a year – but now it’s happening more often.Matthew McClearn/The Globe and Mail

A federal report released in June, known as the National Issues Report, explores how Canadian communities can improve their resilience to climate change while reducing risks and costs. Its chapter on rural and remote communities (defined as those with populations below 10,000) finds that such communities are typically affected worse than large urban centres: Critical infrastructure and services are at risk of failing, and disruptions during extreme weather events are becoming more common and severe. Kelly Vodden, professor of environmental studies at Memorial University’s Environmental Policy Institute and the chapter’s lead author, said many small communities find themselves at the forefront of adaptation out of pure necessity.

Yet these same communities typically have the fewest resources. “The tax base that they’re operating from just doesn’t provide them the capacity they need to properly adapt,” added Mr. Eddy, a co-author. They often also lack the localized projections on climate change consequences needed for planning purposes.

Most of that applies to Liverpool. With a population of around 2,500 living on less than four square kilometres, it’s small. And aging: Roughly 30 per cent of the county population is 65 or older, compared to a provincial average of 20 per cent. The poverty rate is high. The municipality’s budget is just shy of $22-million.

Many communities turn to higher levels of government to fund adaptation efforts. Indeed, one primary motivation for hiring CBCL in the first place was that funding partners would insist on such a study. But Ms. Norman said small governments like hers can’t count on outside help.

“Many, many towns sitting on the coasts are going to need that type of assistance,” she said. “We always look toward federal and provincial for these types of matters. It’s just that it is often not there.”

That’s a national problem. According to a report published in July by the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development, “Financing for adaptation is grossly insufficient and is not keeping pace with growing needs.”

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The third picture is taken from Lanes parking lot looking across the Mersey River to the wharves and the large ship is visible.Tim McDonald/Handout

Mark Baille’s craft brewery, Hell Bay Brewing Co., has resided for the past eight years in an old waterfront building in Liverpool. At first, the property flooded perhaps once a year – but now, he said, it’s happening more often. The worst so far was after tropical storm Dorian, which struck in September, 2019; the brewery’s patio furniture floated up the street.

Mr. Baille has thought about relocating. He’s keen to remain in town, though, and doesn’t see many attractive alternatives. He also understands the municipality has few options.

“Honestly, I don’t know what else they can do.”

The dodgy past of Liverpool’s waterfront is one constraint. In the 1940s, it was the site of a few ponds, some wharves and a harbour that was several metres deep. According to historian Tim McDonald, the downtown was growing and parking was scarce. The wharves were dilapidated and the area was infested with wharf rats.

All of that was filled in around 1950 with a hodgepodge of materials including scrap wood and hulls of old vessels. Mr. McDonald said that on a calm day at low tide, you can still see the bow of one of them poking out from the landfill. Any seawall would need to be built from the river-bottom up, or else water would infiltrate through the low-quality fill.

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This archival photo was taken by Gilbert Kemptons, circa 1900, from behind his shop on Market Street.Queens County Museum/Handout

Flooding happened occasionally even in the parking lot’s early days. It went underwater in November, 1962, amid heavy rains and a high tide, according to an archived story in the local newspaper, The Advance. Few at the time could have envisioned a future when such flooding became commonplace.

The parking lot isn’t the only area at risk. Consulting available estimates, CBCL figured local sea levels at Liverpool could increase by half a metre by 2070, and by one metre by the end of the century. Its fire hall is expected to become vulnerable by 2060. Further out, a grocery store and the local Tim Hortons could flood during storms, along with a significant number of dwellings.

The municipality has settled on options it can afford, such as raising a low-lying road leading to the Town Bridge. It’s the main link between the town and neighbouring communities; flooding there could block movements of fire trucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles. The municipality hopes the province’s Department of Municipal Affairs will fund half of the estimated $500,000 cost. The fire hall will be obsolete well before 2060, and a new one can be built elsewhere.

Meanwhile, it’s also considering amending land use bylaws to require new buildings be set back a minimum of 100 feet or 30 metres from the coast (double the current requirement) and at a minimum elevation of eight feet. Ms. Norman anticipates pushback from realtors, land developers and home builders, but said it’s necessary.

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This archival photo was taken circa 1900, from the Baptist church bell tower looking across the Liverpool parking lot towards the town bridge.Queens County Museum/Handout

Ms. Norman said the municipality has selected a fourth option presented by CBCL: retreat. A strategy recognized and supported by many adaptation specialists, it involves removing people and assets from harm’s way. The fire hall, for example, is old; Ms. Norman said it’ll be straightforward to build its replacement on higher ground.

But Liverpool’s retreat plan is clearly in its infancy. CBCL’s report barely discussed the concept. Normally, retreat involves buying out at-risk properties, which the municipality is loath to do. Key questions, such as what will become of the parking lot once it’s flooding on a monthly or weekly basis, remain unaddressed.

“At this point in time, we’re not thinking of 60 or 80 or 100 years from now when it all might be underwater,” Ms. Norman acknowledged.

Robin Edger, the Insurance Bureau of Canada’s national director of climate change, said planned retreat is a bold move – and one municipalities rarely discuss openly, because it’s “politically explosive.”

In June, his organization joined with insurance companies, municipal governments, Indigenous organizations, environmental non-governmental organizations and other parties to form Climate Proof Canada, a coalition that’s pressing the federal government to step up adaptation efforts coast-to-coast. Small communities like Liverpool need more help, he said.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that small municipalities will have the capacity, either fiscal or just internal to their civil service, to develop a thorough, comprehensive managed retreat plan,” he said. “There’s such an acute need for a national adaptation strategy.”

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