Time for Long-Term Thinking to Minimize Flood Damage

Photo: Josh McIntyre

Photo: Josh McIntyre

The Saint John River floods regularly, but the flood of 2018 was particularly nasty given the speed with which it overflowed its banks, and the length of time the water remained high. I will never forget my sense of foreboding when Saint John River water flowed into the aisle of my bus, as we slowly drove through a flooded-out road on my morning commute to the Legislature. A lot of people are going to be flooded out, I thought, and so they were.

The river rose quickly because of rapid snowmelt. With the dramatic swing in temperatures from single digits during the day and below freezing at night, to above freezing at night and double digits during the day, water gushed into the river. There are consequences of climate change, and this was but another. Springtime in New Brunswick is not what it used to be, so historic patterns of flooding are no longer helpful in predicting how the river will behave in the future.

Everyone was saying they had never seen the river rise so quickly before, but in the age of climate change we should be expecting the unexpected. How often have we heard that we’ve never seen an ice storm like this, or a rainstorm like that? The consequences of rapid climate change are becoming lived experience in New Brunswick. Expect the unexpected.

Projections about the impacts of climate change for our province go back almost 30 years. At best they were ignored, and at worst, ridiculed by the political leaders of the day, when they should have been preparing us for the changes that needed to be made. Instead, governments continued to permit the building of flood-prone buildings and infrastructure in flood zones. The revenue this generated in property taxes seems to have superseded any long-term concerns about damage from future floods.

Long-term thinking has become a scare resource.

The flood of 2018 should make it clear that we’ve got to move back from the water’s edge. Both provincial and municipal governments have the tools they need to ensure new development occurs away from flood zones. They must use these.

We also have to look at how we can help move people away from the riverbanks, as was done in Perth-Andover following their devastating flood of 2012. The provincial government spent $8 million to move, flood-proof and buy out homes and businesses in the flood-prone areas of that village. Revenue from the impending federal price on carbon pollution should be used to move, flood-proof or buy out homes in flood-prone areas where the consequences of flooding are the most damaging.

Long-term thinking means we also have to think about our forests and wetlands as natural infrastructure that helps slow run-off.

One of the frequent recommendations made to the Select Committee on Climate Change was that logging needed to be planned on a watershed basis to ensure that forest cover is sufficient to reduce the rapid run-off of water from extreme rainstorms.

Research by André Plamadon for the Québec Department of Natural Resources found that when more than half of a watershed has seen clearcutting within 35 years, the spring freshet may be severe enough to cause physical changes to local watercourses. It only makes sense that forestry activities and overall land use be planned on a watershed basis, whether or not this would have made a measurable difference to the magnitude of the most recent flood.

Long-term thinking takes political courage because it runs right up against the short-termism of four-year election cycles and quarterly financial results. Short-term thinking, however, is a high-risk business, as the Saint John River flood of 2018 reminds us.

David Coon is the Leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick and the MLA for Fredericton-South.