Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Nature-based Solutions for addressing climate risks and fostering biodiversity in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia

April 2024
ISBN 978-1-7381090-2-9

Authors

Auston Chhor, Jessica Ruggles, and Kristen Walters

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank our funders, the Real Estate Foundation of BC and the Bullitt Foundation, who have made this work possible.

Real Estate Foundation of BC and Bullitt Foundation logos.

About Raincoast

Raincoast is a team of scientists and conservationists dedicated to safeguarding the land, waters, and wildlife of coastal British Columbia.

Our vision for coastal British Columbia is to protect the habitats and resources of umbrella species. We believe this approach will help safeguard all species, including people, and ecological processes that exist at different scales. Central to our efforts are long-term partnerships with Indigenous communities.

Executive summary 

BC’s Lower Mainland is under threat

Climate change and habitat loss are two intersecting issues facing communities and ecosystems in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. In response to increasingly severe weather, municipalities have invested heavily in engineered defences like floodgates, dikes, and breakwalls, resulting in a profound loss of aquatic and riparian habitat. These lost ecosystems were once critical to local wildlife and provided water management services like flood mitigation and water filtration.

Nature-based Solutions

Nature-based Solutions offer a unique opportunity to simultaneously address heightened climate risks and habitat loss by using a framework that values the benefits that intact ecosystems provide to human society. Our report highlights the services that Nature-based Solutions can provide, namely, flood mitigation, stormwater management, and carbon sequestration, while discussing successes and challenges associated with their implementation across the Lower Mainland.

Pond surrounded by trees and wetland plants.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

First, we introduce Surrey’s living dike in Boundary Bay, part of the city’s broader Coastal Flooding Adaptation Strategy. The living dike aims to address heightened coastal flood risk by incorporating components of a natural salt marsh into its design. This design will provide quality estuarine and riparian habitat for migratory birds and salmon in addition to creating a more climate resilient shoreline.

Second, we highlight the City of Vancouver’s St. George Rainway project. Located in the heart of the Mt. Pleasant neighbourhood in Vancouver, the project will restore a buried creek along St. George Street. The restored creek will create urban stream habitat, filter pollutants from runoff, and improve rainwater management. This process, known colloquially as “daylighting,” is a new approach to urban rainwater management that values the ecological, economic, and social benefits of urban green space.

Lastly, we place a spotlight on the protection of Burns Bog, a Nature-based Solution that foregoes active restoration. By protecting the bog in its current state, carbon remains locked in its soils and plants, actively mitigating climate change. Burns Bog is also an internationally significant stopover site for migratory birds, and contains a myriad of unique plant species found nowhere else in the Lower Mainland. Nearby communities also benefit from the water filtering services it provides, as well as its ability to mitigate flooding. 

Identified gaps and recommendations 

For each example, we underscore key gaps in the implementation of each Nature-based Solution and offer recommendations that would improve them or future projects. 

Surrey’s Coastal Adaptation Flood Strategy still incorporates many components of traditional grey infrastructure, most significantly a plan to replace the Nicomekl and Serpentine River sea dams with newer, larger dams. There are serious concerns regarding the ability of these sea dams to facilitate fish passage, and their continued use in the same system as the living dike can hinder the conservation gains that the living dike will provide.

In Vancouver, we focus on the nearly 20-year timeframe that the St. George Rainway took from planning to implementation, a pace of work that is unsustainable in the face of rapidly advancing climate threats, many which are now occurring annually.

Lastly, we call to attention the lingering threats that Burns Bog faces due to large parcels of land within the bog still under private ownership. Development of these lands threatens to not only release stored carbon, but could also spell disaster for the ecosystem functioning of the bog as a whole. We argue that when creating protected areas, boundaries must be defined using ecological parameters, not jurisdictional lines. This is even more important when protecting carbon sequestering ecosystems like wetlands.

More broadly, we underscore a lack of institutional knowledge on Nature-based Solutions within government agencies. This could be to blame for a planning culture that prioritizes engineered solutions in all contexts, while relegating Nature-based Solutions to small pilot projects. In addition, there are scarce examples of Indigenous-led Nature-based Solutions in the Lower Mainland, calling for increased capacity building and funding to enable Indigenous-led projects.

Nature-based Solutions are a powerful tool that many municipalities are using to adapt to climate change, while fostering local biodiversity. Yet, our report reveals clear gaps in the implementation of three major Nature-based Solutions in the Lower Mainland, calling to attention the need for greater education and acceptance of Nature-based Solutions by decision-makers. As cities continue to bear the consequences of climate change, there is a need to incorporate Nature-based Solutions into all aspects of environmental planning.

Introduction

Habitat loss

Aquatic and riparian habitats in the Lower Mainland face unprecedented loss and alteration. Since colonization, wetlands, coastal marshes, and rivers in the region have been drastically altered to suit human needs. A recent analysis determined that 85% of stream habitat in the Lower Fraser Region between Hope and Delta has been lost1, and ongoing and proposed megaprojects like Terminal 2 at Roberts Bank and the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion threaten to extirpate at-risk salmon populations as well as other species that rely on remaining aquatic habitats in the lower mainland.2,3 

A small stream running through the forest.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Climate risks

The impacts of climate change are already being observed on both the natural and built environment. On a near-annual basis, increasingly extreme weather events expose clear vulnerabilities in water infrastructure throughout the Lower Mainland. In the context of the Lower Mainland’s booming population, immediate action is needed to address biodiversity loss and the increased risks from extreme weather and climate events on people, communities, and ecosystems.

Traditional solutions

In response to these threats, municipalities have historically altered natural processes and habitats with the intent of controlling and mitigating risk. The diking of marshes, building of seawalls, and trenching of natural watercourses have resulted in a profound loss of freshwater and estuarine habitat. These engineered approaches have increasingly been revealed to provide poor habitat, are expensive to install and maintain, and ultimately not effective at adapting to the unpredictable nature of the advancing climate crisis.4

Nature-based Solutions 

Only recently, jurisdictions have begun to realize that strategies that work in tandem with the natural world often yield greater results than those that seek to control it. These strategies are known as Nature-based Solutions, and mark a fundamental shift in the conventional mindset of environmental management.5

It is estimated that over 50% of the human population lives within three kilometres of a lake, river, or ocean.6 These important aquatic habitats have been subject to damming, land reclamation, shoreline alteration, and rerouting for centuries, hollowing out these once abundant ecosystems. In addition, these ecosystems play a critical role in mitigating flooding, sequestering carbon, and filtering impurities out of water. By learning from and restoring these ecosystems, Nature-based Solutions are a unique opportunity to simultaneously address the intersecting crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. Some examples of Nature-based Solutions currently being explored by municipalities include bioswales, wetland restoration, living shorelines, green roofs, and stream daylighting.5

The goal of this report is to increase the knowledge of Nature-based Solutions within municipal decision-makers and demonstrate their effectiveness for responding to heightened climate risks and fostering biodiversity. In addition, we provide an analysis of three Nature-based Solutions in the Lower Mainland and offer recommendations that would advance their implementation and aid their success.

Flood mitigation

The problem

In Metro Vancouver, climate change is expected to cause 1.5 metres of sea level rise by 2100.7 Coupled with the threat of more frequent and intense storms, coastal flooding is one of the most pressing issues facing the region. Salt marshes, which protect shorelines from waves, sequester carbon, and provide a wealth of habitat, are experiencing what is known as “coastal squeeze,” as sea level rises and human shoreline development inhibit marshes from migrating inland.8

Flooding is also a major risk in the Fraser Valley as climate change causes mountain snowpacks to melt earlier, winter precipitation to increase, and more of it to fall as rain than snow. An increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires is also expected, reducing the soil’s ability to absorb runoff and further contributing to flooding. As recent as 2021, record rain storms have put the vulnerabilities of current flood infrastructure in plain view. In addition, these impacts are felt much more strongly in marginalized communities, as demonstrated in the flooding of many BC First Nations’ territories in the winter of 2021.9 Upgrades to dikes, pump stations, and other traditional flood infrastructure have been estimated to cost upwards of $9 billion.10

Another issue is the continued development in known floodplains. Chilliwack alone has developed almost 50% of its buildings on the floodplains of the Fraser River, and building is still permitted in floodplain zones currently protected by dikes.11 As demonstrated in the reformation of Sumas Lake in 2021, climate change is quickly forcing these floodplain communities to adapt, rebuild, or relocate.11

Nature-based Solutions

In the marine environment, restoring and protecting salt marshes and mudflats can be an effective tool for buffering against the impacts of sea level rise. Native grasses that grow in salt marshes reduce wave height, remove carbon from the atmosphere12, and provide rearing habitat for juvenile salmon. Reconstructing existing shorelines following a “living shoreline” approach also helps to reduce the impact of storm surges by giving waves room to naturally dissipate before they reach human developments. This “room for the water” approach creates rich wetland habitat that is allowed to flood during extreme weather events.13 

Long grasses along the shore of the water.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Case study: Coastal Flood Adaptation Strategy, Surrey, BC

As part of the Coastal Flood Adaptation Strategy, the City of Surrey is currently designing a Nature-based Solution known as a “living dike” in the Mud Bay area of Boundary Bay.14 The living dike aims to restore lost salt marsh habitat in front of the existing dike by planting native marsh plants and lowering the shoreline grade with sediment. Situated in the uniquely biodiverse ecoregion of Boundary Bay, the living dike will provide habitat for salmon, pinnipeds, shorebirds, and migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway. The project is the first of its kind in the region, and hopes to serve as a model for future projects of similar nature. The project engaged extensively with the Semiahmoo, Kwantlen, Katzie, and Tsawwassen First Nations. As of March 2024, the City of Surrey is seeking an Environmental Assessment Certificate exemption due to the restorative nature of the project and to fast-track its implementation.

However, the strategy contains key gaps, notably its decision to rebuild and replace two ageing sea dams on the Nicomekl and Serpentine Rivers with larger, seismically modernized dams. The existing dams are a considerable barrier to fish passage, and conservation groups have expressed concern regarding the ability of a new design to adequately facilitate greater fish passage.15 

Lessons to learn

Without question, Surrey’s living dike represents a forward-thinking approach to coastal adaptation to sea level rise and will create new rearing habitat vital for juvenile salmon. However, the benefits to salmon and wildlife may be hindered by Surrey’s decision to continue using an engineered approach for flood mitigation in the Nicomekl and Serpentine Rivers. In their current configuration, the sea dams prevent the inflows of brackish water into the rivers during high tide, protecting agricultural land immediately adjacent to the shoreline. Historically, this land was an intertidal zone providing integral habitat for wildlife.

As sea level rise continues, planners need to shift their focus away from “building bigger, better” engineered approaches and towards Nature-based Solutions that acknowledge the rates of locked-in sea level rise and move agricultural land and human development away from hazards. Local food security is a high priority in the area, which is often used as a rationale for continuing to use engineered approaches. Yet, the indirect benefits to food security that Nature-based Solutions can provide–namely, habitat for pollinators, improved salmon returns, and soil fertility–are often not recognized.

Stormwater management

The problem

Streams once flowed through the heart of many major cities, providing habitat for wildlife and managing water during storms. As development progressed during urbanization, the majority of these streams were paved over, channelized, and subsequently lost. In the Lower Fraser region, 117 streams have been lost with another 556 classified as “threatened” or “endangered,” based on existing habitat, water quality, and proximity to urbanization.16

The loss of these streams, in addition to the prevalence of combined stormwater and wastewater infrastructure and impervious surfaces, has led to millions of litres of untreated sewage pumped directly into waterways in the Lower Mainland each year. Without the natural filtration processes that streams used to provide, salmon-killing chemicals like 6ppd-quinone, microplastics, and other pollutants regularly contaminate ecosystems through runoff from impervious surfaces and agricultural fields.17 Equally, the loss of groundwater recharge that once naturally sustained summer streams causes many to run dry during periods of drought, in addition to increasing stream “flashiness” and turbidity during storms.

Nature-based Solutions

These impacts can be mitigated by restoring the natural water management services that once existed within our cities. This approach has been described as “urban greening” and aims to replace concrete and asphalt covered surfaces with green space, which absorbs, stores, and filters water. Some strategies include the restoration of buried streams, bioswales, rain gardens, and retention ponds.

These green spaces also create important urban habitat, offer residents with recreation and educational opportunities, provide cool refuge during heatwaves, and can facilitate community connectedness and stewardship.

Creek running through an intact forest.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Case Study: St. George Rainway, Vancouver, BC

The City of Vancouver recently finalized a plan to daylight a lost stream along St. George Street18 in the Mt. Pleasant neighbourhood, an area home to several streams that once drained into False Creek. The project will improve local biodiversity, increase water storage, and restore the natural filtration processes that the stream and surrounding vegetation once provided. A major highlight of the project is its high level of engagement with the local community, through multiple outreach and feedback sessions, in addition to a partnership with a volunteer community group, The St. George Rainway Project.19 Initiated in 2007, the St. George Rainway Project has been advocating for stream daylighting to be included in the official Mt. Pleasant Community Plan and the city’s broader Rain City Strategy which was adopted in 2019.20

The Rain City Strategy aims to embrace rainwater as a valued resource for both communities and natural ecosystems, striving to create green infrastructure projects that facilitate rainwater management, local biodiversity, and community cohesion. Since its adoption, the City of Vancouver has implemented over 300 green and grey infrastructure initiatives that aim to address combined sewer overflows and runoff. Many of these projects are small scale and are spread throughout the city. This allows these projects to be planned and completed relatively quickly, and builds broader public awareness of their benefits. The Rain City strategy also guides larger planned daylighting projects including initiatives in Tatlow and Volunteer Parks21, and Canyon Creek.22

Lessons to learn

Despite knowledge of their benefits going back to the late 2000s, green rainwater management projects in Vancouver only started gaining momentum after the adoption of the Rain City Strategy in 2019. For example, community advocates in the Mt. Pleasant area founded the St. George Rainway Project in 2007, and on-the-ground work on the project had yet to start before the publication of this report. Climate effects on water infrastructure and cities are being felt today, calling for a faster adoption of green infrastructure strategies for managing their impacts.

Vancouver’s Rain City program shows how a comprehensive framework can be used to guide multiple projects of varying sizes and scope, however real acceleration of the scale and scope of its projects is necessary to respond to the advancing climate risks that threaten Vancouver’s water infrastructure.

Carbon sequestration

The problem

The Nature-based Solutions detailed above are focused on actively restoring lost habitat and involve the removal of existing grey infrastructure or human development. However, a powerful tool for mitigating climate change is protecting existing ecosystems, especially those that store large amounts of carbon either in soils or plant life. Wetlands, bogs, and swamps are examples of such carbon-sequestering ecosystems, and have historically been developed at high rates due to their perceived incompatibility with human development, releasing the carbon stored in their soils into the atmosphere.23

Wetland at the S,DÁYES Flycatcher Forest with the sun in the background.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Nature-based Solutions

The protection of existing carbon-sequestering ecosystems is without question the lowest cost method of reducing carbon emissions. By preventing the release of the carbon these ecosystems store, municipalities save significant costs associated with “active” carbon sequestering solutions in the future, such as tree-planting or carbon capture technology, the latter having not yet been proved to be a viable or effective solution. Protecting existing ecosystems also preserves the unique diversity of locally adapted species, many of which would be difficult to establish and thrive in newly restored habitats.

Case Study: Burns Bog, Delta, BC

Burns Bog in Delta, BC, is a prime example of wetland protection. Once the site of peat mining, the protection of its carbon-storing soils and vegetation has prevented a large release of carbon into the atmosphere. The bog has faced numerous development proposals from industry before its protection in 2004, and it remains the largest undeveloped wetland on the west coast of the Americas.24 The bog provides crucial habitat for more than 300 plant and animal species, and is a stopover site for migratory birds from across the Pacific Flyway, a route that spans the north and southern hemispheres.25 The bog also provides water storage, filtration, and supports water quality for nearby salmon streams.

Still, a large portion of Burns Bog remains as private land and could be subject to future development. These lands were not included in the creation of the original 5,000 acre Burns Bog Ecological Conservancy Area by the City of Delta, Metro Vancouver, and the provincial and federal governments. Current development proposals–the most recent being a plan for a 14.7 acre agricultural warehouse–in the privately held land of Burns Bog threaten the functioning of the adjacent protected lands within the Burns Bog Ecological Conservancy Area. Leachate from the nearby Vancouver Landfill, noise, impacts of the perimeter road, and light pollution have been identified as current or potential threats to the ecosystem of Burns Bog. Industrial activity also poses a fire risk to the bog, which has experienced several damaging wildfires over its history, including the most recent in 2016.

Lessons to learn

In Burns Bog, threats to adjacent unprotected lands often have spillover effects on protected lands, putting ecosystem function at risk. Due to their unique hydrology and ecology, wetlands like Burns Bog require protection in their entirety.

Conclusion

Themes of success

When implemented well, Nature-based Solutions offer municipalities a chance to address climate risks and restore habitat while also providing residents with green space and educational opportunities.

In Surrey, the living dike plan in Boundary Bay marks a significant change from traditional measures used to adapt to sea level rise in the area, and the project’s large size and scope will serve as a model for future green shoreline protection methods that are sorely needed across coastlines of the Lower Mainland.

Vancouver’s Rain City Strategy shows that developing a guiding framework for Nature-based Solutions helps to facilitate rapid implementation of projects across the region. Completing multiple small-scale projects can also help build momentum and public support for larger plans. 

Lastly, the protection of Burns Bog represents the successes possible when community members and all levels of government come together to manage a conservation area.

Barriers and gaps

Nature-based Solutions have only recently been acknowledged as a legitimate tool for mitigating climate risks, with grey infrastructure traditionally taking priority in all contexts. As projects begin to pick up momentum across the Lower Mainland, it is important to continue building institutional knowledge about the uses and benefits of Nature-based Solutions. In addition, there is a definite lack of projects led by First Nations, pointing to discrepancies in funding and capacity for Nature-based Solutions projects between colonial and First Nations governments.

Drop of water falling in a small pond
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

We also did not come across any examples of municipalities pursuing “managed retreat,” defined as the purposeful movement of communities and infrastructure away from climate risks. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has argued that managed retreat is increasingly necessary in coastal and floodplain areas, and communities such as Grand Forks in the Kootenay Region have already begun implementing this strategy.26 In the Fraser delta and valley, both agricultural and residential development continues on known floodplains, despite the increased flood risks from sea level rise, changes in precipitation, and earlier melting of snowpack. 

Economics and politics of Nature-based Solutions

Natural ecosystems also provide tangible economic benefits to society, through processes known as “ecosystem services.” In the Lower Mainland alone, aquatic ecosystems provide roughly $2.8 billion worth of public services in the form of water purification and flood mitigation. This is in addition to their other benefits, which include air purification, carbon sequestration, habitat for pollinators, and areas for recreation.27 In addition to their inherent value, accounting for the economic contribution that ecosystems generate can provide yet another incentive for their protection and stewardship. 

In addition to providing quality habitat, Nature-based Solutions are often less costly to implement relative to grey infrastructure, and are more resilient to the long-term impacts of climate change. For example, a cost analysis of a managed retreat strategy in the former Sumas Lake determined that restoring the lake to its pre-drained state would cost just half of what a flood adaptation strategy using engineered infrastructure would.11 A managed retreat strategy would also honour Canada’s commitment to reconciliation by returning the lake to the Sém:ath people, who were forcibly removed from their land when the lake was drained in the 1920s. 

For far too long, municipalities have paved over aquatic habitats to build costly grey infrastructure, which often requires significant upkeep, repair, and maintenance. For example, the City of Vancouver spends millions of dollars on repairs to the seawall in Stanley Park, with total costs projected to reach upwards of $300 million as the park faces the cumulative effects of sea level rise and more intense storms.28 Following the principles of Nature-based Solutions, municipal planners have recently been exploring ways to naturalize the Stanley Park shoreline to ensure the park remains resilient in the face of a rapidly changing coastal environment. 

Recommendations

To conclude, we share the following recommendations for municipalities planning or currently working on Nature-based Solutions:

  1. Acknowledge scientific evidence of climate-associated flooding and sea level rise, and consider strategies that return “room for water.”
  2. Account for the secondary benefits of green space beyond water management, including ecological, social, and educational benefits.
  3. Monitor project performance using ecological parameters, and find opportunities for communities to take the lead.
  4. Increase opportunities for Indigenous-led Nature-based Solutions through capacity building and sustainable funding.
  5. Weave aspects of Nature-based Solutions into broader municipal strategies where possible, including transportation, housing, and land use planning.
  6. Use a whole-ecosystem approach when designing Nature-based Solutions, and ensure designs create high-quality, complex habitat that support underlying ecological processes. 
  7. Use the health and abundance of foundational species like salmon as an indicator of broader ecosystem health. Foundation species support ecosystems from the bottom up, and actions that benefit them will lead to cascading benefits across the food web.
  8. Begin an honest public accounting of the cost burden that is being added to future municipal expenses by delaying and ignoring emerging climate threats.

References

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