New partnership aims to help B.C. communities adapt to surging seas

Mud Bay is increasingly under threat as sea level rise pushes the salt marsh up against the dikes lining the shore—a phenomenon known as coastal squeeze. If the marsh disappears, so too will the marine life that it supports.

Mud Bay in Surrey, B.C. is a recreational paradise. Bike riders zip down along the dike in all seasons, while walkers enjoy exploring the trails close to shore. The salt marsh—where the tide moves in and out twice a day—teems with plant and wildlife, including small fish, tiny crabs and other species that call the bay home. Up to 15 migratory bird species visit in spring and autumn, including snow geese, mallard and black-bellied plover.

Although the scenery is idyllic, it’s also in peril. Mud Bay is increasingly under threat as sea level rise pushes the salt marsh up against the dikes lining the shore—a phenomenon known as coastal squeeze. If the marsh disappears, so too will the marine life that it supports.

It’s a prospect that dismays UBC researcher Kees Lokman.

“Mud Bay is just one of the many coastal B.C. regions and communities that are under threat from rising sea levels caused by climate change,” says Lokman, a professor at UBC’s school of architecture and landscape architecture, and director of the Coastal Adaptation Lab.

“As glaciers melt and oceans warm up, rising sea levels are putting many highly populated areas at risk. Coastal erosion, severe flooding, loss of wildlife habitats are just some of the impacts these areas will experience.”

Lokman has set his sights on finding solutions to this problem. His lab at UBC draws researchers from diverse disciplines, ranging from biology and ecology to policy and engineering, with everyone working together to find sustainable solutions to the problems caused by climate change, particularly flooding.

From the very beginning, the lab has focused on exploring nature-based approaches such as “living dikes”, which are slowly built up from sediment deposits instead of being built purely out of concrete slabs. Such dikes can protect nearby salt marshes by reducing wave action and flood risk, while also supporting marine life.

“Conventional approaches like building dikes and seawalls may protect buildings and property but they’re often at the expense of wildlife habitats,” notes Lokman. “We need sustainable approaches that work with nature and include the values of affected communities. And we need to make a concerted, collaborative effort to address sea level rise across the region.”

New $1 million funding

Lokman was recently awarded $1 million in new funding from the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions to extend his work in new directions. He’ll be working in concert with partners across B.C.’s southern coast including UBC and other leading universities, Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) First Nations, municipalities, legal experts and the B.C. government.

The new project, called Living with Water, aims to develop an integrated response to sea level rise, which Lokman says is lacking in the region.

“We don’t have a single body overseeing coastal flood management and ecosystem conservation for our province, and it’s a critical lack. With this work, we hope to set the foundation for an integrated coastal flood adaptation plan for British Columbia,” said Lokman.

UBC architecture and landscape architecture professor Kees Lokman
UBC architecture and landscape architecture professor Kees Lokman advocates for a more nature-based, integrated solution to flooding caused by climate change. Photo: Bruce Marchfelder/UBC

He noted that with many Indigenous Nations having territories within the B.C. coast, in addition to municipal and regional government districts, a regional scale is necessary to develop effective tools to support solutions across shared ecosystems and shorelines.

The project’s two other goals are to integrate community values and Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in coastal flood risk assessment, and to develop decision-support tools for emerging alternate flood adaptation solutions, such as multifunctional dikes and nature-based solutions.

Partners in seeking solutions

Crucial to the whole enterprise is studying current and alternative flood management practices, and healthy knowledge exchange between the different partners.

Up to 20 per cent of Surrey’s land base sits on a flood plain. By participating in the project, the city is more likely to consider including nature-based solutions in its flood adaptation strategies, says Matt Osler, city project engineer.

“By working collaboratively, Surrey and other jurisdictions can better assess the benefits of a project and increase awareness of coastal flood risk,” says Osler.

Vancouver, another project partner, could also find some answers for its own formidable challenges. Angela Danyluk, the city’s senior sustainability specialist, notes that Vancouver has as much as $28.6 billion in property values in the flood plain.

“False Creek, the Fraser River, and other foreshore areas are vulnerable to major flooding at the end of the century as sea levels continue to rise. If nothing is done, the social and economic loss could be staggering,” says Danyluk.

She’s particularly interested in case studies and insights from other project partners. “I’m curious what new ideas can we harvest from UBC’s work and in solutions that are nature-based. I’m also excited to learn, in collaboration with Indigenous Knowledge Keepers, how clam gardens mitigate coastal erosion and provide habitat.”

The Tsleil-Waututh Nation has developed a climate change resilience plan that combines Indigenous knowledge with scientific analysis and provides a recommended set of actions to build community low carbon resilience to climate change over the next 10 years.

According to Gabriel George, Director of Treaty Lands and Resources, the Living with Water project is an important opportunity to help shape climate change adaptation policies and best practices.

“We see this as an opportunity to learn from regional shoreline adaptation case studies, to share Indigenous knowledge, and to work alongside leading climate change researchers, practitioners and policy makers,” said George. “We also look forward to working collaboratively with interdisciplinary teams to explore and promote creative nature-based climate change solutions.”

Ultimately, these collaborations will shed light on alternative flood adaptation solutions that can help communities plan for the future, Lokman says.

“We will develop frameworks to help coastal communities understand and evaluate the merits and trade-offs of different approaches. Do you hold the line—reinforcing or protecting existing shorelines to adapt-in-place? Or do you make a strategic retreat to higher grounds? Each community will decide on what’s best for them—but we will contribute the tools and knowledge they can use to evaluate, decide and act.”

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