Not waiting for Noah

Planning is best done in advance.” – Anonymous

Neighborhood on the South Saskatchewan river, June 2013

Flying into Calgary at the end of June, everyone on the plane was glued to the windows, staring at the mess of mud and debris from the Great Flood.

Eventually, rivers always have their own way.

Embarrassingly, I was there to speak at the Canadian Water Summit about collaborative drought planning. By a miracle of organization, the Summit was hastily relocated from the flooded Stampede grounds to a nearby airport hotel. I gave my talk as planned, with some blushing and a few words about unpredictable extreme events.

One of many outrageous pictures from the recent flooding in Colorado

One of many outrageous pictures from the recent flooding in Colorado

A drought could come next year.

The situation was made even more ironic, because I’d just spent several months getting my head around collaborative flood planning, much more topical under the circumstances. The deadly mudslides in BC last year had left me feeling that we are even less prepared for floods than water shortages. Continue reading

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Lessons from Sandy: disaster isn’t our only option

Do we renovate? Of course we renovate,” Ms. Fisher said. “But what if it happens again, next year and the year after?” – NY Times, 11/23/2012.

Unpleasant Weather: Mother Nature gave us a good smacking in 2012, as if to say “Smarten up! Get your act together!” Here in B.C., outrageous spring rainfall brought terrible mud-slides. All summer in the U.S. and Central Canada, there were devastating droughts. Windstorms knocked out power for millions of people during record heat waves.

Not everyone in Manhattan was taking Hurricane Sandy seriously.

When Hurricane Sandy came around, the Onion, a satirical newspaper, published an article headlined, “Nation suddenly realizes this is just going to be a thing that happens from now on.” FEMA appealed for extra flood-relief funds from Congress, President Obama called for insurance companies to do their part, and clean-up efforts began.

If we really accept that “this is just going to be a thing that happens,” now is a good time to revisit our development planning. We really don’t have to live like this. Change is daunting, but doable.

. Continue reading

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The Dirt Makes the Difference.

“Political stability, environmental quality, hunger, and poverty all have the same root. In the long run, the solution to each is restoring…the soil.” Rattan Lal

Soil/Water Conservation: Coming in from the garden this weekend, I went straight to the sink to wash my hands. Carefully turning off the tap while soaping, I readjusted the faucet, and rinsed off the gritty brown lather.

Ironically, it is the dirt, not the act of turning off the tap, that really saves water. Yes, my friends, some of the most effective things for water conservation are not the most intuitive. The soil in our yards and gardens is one of the most powerful forces we have for water conservation and pollution prevention.

Not that I shouldn’t wash my hands regularly and with care.

Continue reading

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Getting beyond inertia and disaster-driven policy response

This is your time and it feels normal to you, but really there is no normal.  There’s only change and resistance to it and then more change.“ –  Meryl Streep

I’ve been writing about change lately – change in climate and population. But it will take even more change to adapt to new conditions.  The challenge is knowing where we are vulnerable and how to respond, so we can protect the things we love.  But how do we get through the inertia to action?

Summer rains on Kootenay Lake - photo taken a few days before and a few kilometres north of the Johnson's Landing slide. Courtesy of Brynne Herbison.

It’s as true for individuals as whole communities.  People tend to trust their odds for most things – but suddenly, without warning, the ground can shift beneath us.

I’ve been deeply unsettled by news of the mudslide in Johnson’s Landing last week – a place I’ve visited often.  A tragedy is the worst kind of catalyst for change. Continue reading

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Weddings, weird weather, and where to fit everyone

Do not compute the totality of your poultry population until all the manifestations of incubation have been entirely completed.” – William Jennings Bryan

I’m calling 2012 “the year of weddings and babies” – there are dozens popping up on my facebook.  It’s also the year of the dragon, and my friend from China says many couples purposely plan and wait to have “dragon babies.” There’s a feeling of exuberance in the air.

Flower girl Noli, at a June wedding.

And so, with celebration, the population grows. Much has been written about global carrying capacity, but we are human, here and now.

Where will everyone live? Some are moving here – BC Stats says 45% more for the Central Okanagan by 2036 – maybe 70,000 or 80,000 new people. Other regional districts may grow more slowly, but this seems like a good proxy for growth up and down the urban core of the valley.

It’s a beautiful place to be. We actively try to attract young families and workers; and the retirees come with little coaxing. It’s part of a great global migration.

And what about the water? This year there is no lack of rain, but it always pays to be thoughtful about essential resources. As we have more people, we’ll need more clean drinking water, and more fresh fruit and vegetables.We’ll have more neighbours to feel the effects of floods and shortages, and more of us will be out hiking and biking in the watershed. We’ll have bigger demands for lumber and gravel, more boats on the lake, more everything. Continue reading

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Nature is a tough mother: adventures in water supply and demand

Live in the questions, and gradually, and almost without noticing, you will enter the answers and live them also.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

What does water sustainability look like?  How will we know when we get there?

With climate now a moving target, sustainability – as a concept – may lend a false sense of future security.

These green pastures probably aren’t a place we actually arrive – a utopia of living roofs, light rail, and urban agriculture. Instead, I’ve been trying to think of sustainability as adapting to whatever change happens – while protecting the systems of our little planet for those who come later.

“Resilience” captures the same idea – the capacity to rebound and rebuild after a forest fire, or like our immune systems, to keep us healthy in a world of germs.

For water management – like everything – to reach a state of readiness, we need to start with what we know, pursue the “known unknowns,” and (hopefully) reveal the unknowns we’ve never considered.

In this spirit, over the past six years, a group of agencies and researchers has undertaken a water supply and demand assessment of the Okanagan: looking for practical paths forward, so that decisions can be based on science, information gaps are uncovered, and we get a better idea of what to expect from climate change.

There is a lot of history. The Okanagan has had water shortages since irrigated agriculture arrived more than 100 years ago. In the past, we’ve taken a supply-side approach, building dams and diversions and drainage ditches. But if anything, the balancing act has become more difficult.

The challenge is the inexorability of change. More people come in, more fields are planted, and we start to recognize that fish want water too. Town councils ask, “Is there a real concern? Are we going to run out of water?” Continue reading

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Think globally – get insurance locally

“…and chaos in the elements. The temperatures unbalanced, grand snow mountains – hard firm glaciers – will melt and disappear. Rivers and lakes becoming scarce …” – Tibetan poem on global warming

The weather is changing globally, but it’s the sewer backed-up that will bring climate change home to many Canadians.

Refueling the donkey - posted on Facebook.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with the implications and magnitude of global warming. It’s hard to absorb something this vast, although I know it’s important to make a shift in the scale of my perspective.

Sea level change is a good example. Tides are rising because of simple physics: global temperatures are rising, water expands as it gets warmer, and melting ice caps grow the pool. It’s dramatic but totally predictable. Coastal communities are weighing options for higher dikes, raising homes on stilts, or relocating neighbourhoods. The island nation of Kiribati is considering a move to Fiji.

This is big. Continue reading

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A Parable of Weeds: change, adaptation and leadership

For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” – John F. Kennedy

It’s startling (and creepy) to swim into a milfoil bed – an unexpected brush against your side, a light tug at your ankles …Yikes! Is that a fish?... Some people won’t swim in the lake; and American newspapers even publish stories about “milfoil-related” panics and fatalities.  We don’t want lakes to be like swimming pools, but it’s disconcerting to know that this invasive plant is here to stay, and we have to learn to live with it.

Cleaning the beaches, circa 1974

This post is about living with change – changing landscapes, changing water supplies, changing culture and population. We have to be ready and able to change too. What can we save? Where should we throw the greatest effort? Who will lead?

The globalization of weeds (and weedy animals) seems unstoppable, coming wave after wave.  As a student, I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility and occasional despair. I imagine it’s the same for students of glaciology – watching the melt. Invasive species are a lot like climate change. Continue reading

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It’s like money in the (snow)bank

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” – John Ruskin
 
Yesterday in Kelowna, I saw a woman standing on the sidewalk, all decked out in ski gear – boots and skis on.  It was dark, and there was no snow.  I don’t have an explanation, just to say, many people move here for the winter sports.

Snow in the Okanagan - it's not just for skiiers.

 
If you aren’t a skier, and your winter experience involves driving around, fighting the elements, snow seems like a terrible bother.  I won’t post the picture of my totaled Toyota on the Coquihalla.  Whether you love it or not, I’d argue that snow is even more important to the Okanagan in the summer than the winter. 
 
Think of snow as a giant, slow-release water reservoir.  Most of the planning and infrastructure changes we need for adapting to climate change involve ways to adapt to changes in snow cover. Less snow means less skiing, less boating, less wine, less apples, less cherries and most other things we hold dear.  Continue reading
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No vacation in the Salmon Nation

All men are equal before fish.” – Herbert Hoover

Last week, I attended a workshop in Portland, Oregon, on the future of salmon under climate change.  Our delegation had been invited to talk about the resurgence of sockeye in the Okanagan River, and our experiences with collaboration. Scientists, managers, fishers, First Nations, and other friends of fish, gathered from around the north Pacific to talk about good news, bad news, and what’s possible. It was a diverse group from far-flung geography,  bound together by the need to manage salmon under rapidly changing conditions.

And while much of the conversation was focused on science, there was an important thread about values. What we protect and care for depends strongly on what we value as communities.

While there is uncertainty about the impacts of climate change in specific salmon areas, almost all models project the same outcome: warming waters, summer and winter. Warmer summer waters interfere with spawning, rearing, and migration – and can lead to fish kills in oxygen-poor water.  Warmer waters in winter (particularly in the ocean) could expand the range of salmon to the north as the sea ice breaks up; but this wouldn’t replace the loss of salmon to southern ecosystems and communities. Continue reading

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