There are concerns the widespread flooding of Okanagan Lake may occur more frequently in the future and the region needs to be better prepared to deal with such dynamic weather events associated with climate change. Image Credit: Contributed

Cost of Okanagan lifestyle increasing

Water board AGM focus on impact of climate change

Responding to the challenges posed by extreme weather conditions can seem overwhelming.

But to Anna Warwick Sears, executive director of the Okanagan Basin Water Board, the link between adaptation and mitigation to climate change is an important link for governments.

Just this year, the Okanagan has seen record rainfall which led to flooding in May, followed by record dryness which led to an extreme forest fire hazard both here and across the Southern Interior of the province.

Add to that the forest fires in the Pacific Northwest down to California, the tropical rainstorm flooding in Houston and the hurricane that ravaged several Caribbean islands and across Florida, it points to the planet becoming warmer and creating a capacity to hold more water in the atmosphere, said Warwick Sears.

She said flood control mitigation efforts alone this year cost $20 million within the Central Okanagan Regional District. The bill is still being racked up to a record-high in firefighting costs to the province this summer.

And the pressure placed on regional district and civic government staff to respond to weather-inflamed disasters is personified by overtime hours accumulated and lack to time to get to other pre-planned objectives this summer.

“We broke our own records for rainfall and have a new high water mark for the valley. How do you manage around extreme precipitation?” Warwick Sears asked.

“There are some things you just can’t adapt to, so it’s important we bring mitigation into the conversation.”

Mitigation refers to restitution by replacement, restoration, compensation or other means for environmental damage caused by climate change events.

Adaptation focuses on adjusting natural or human patterns in response to actual or expected environment changes, to either moderate potential damage or exploit new opportunities.

Warwick Sears was one of several keynote speakers at the recent annual general meeting for the OBWB held in West Kelowna.

Maximilian Kniewasser, director of the Pembina Institute climate policy program for B.C., said how we evolve to a changing climate and expand a cleaner economy will determine the extent of both adaptation and mitigation efforts in our province.

And there are positive and negative aspects to how that evolution is unfolding.

Kniewasser said a one degree Celsius rise in temperature is already reflected in widespread floods and wildfires, and it will get worse if global temperatures rise by 2C.

“As a global community we can’t adapt beyond 2C. So that’s where mitigation comes in,” he said.

“There will be a loss of biodiversity. Food will be scarce. Rich countries will do fine, but the implications for humanity as a whole will be unprecedented.

“We are standing at an inflection point—a turning point.”

Adding to the rising temperatures is the lowering of temperatures in the Arctic, which is generating the release of methane gas into the atmosphere as the polar ice cap recedes, with fracking for natural gas in North America also worsening the greenhouse gas effect already fed by fossil-fuel industries.

But on the positive side, Kniewasser cited the growth of the clean energy sector, particularly in B.C.

He said in 2006, the province was home to 75 clean air tech companies employing 3,000 people. In 2016, those numbers sit at 270 and 13,000 and are expected to grow to 400 and 50,000 by 2025.

He added the cost of clean air products has also dropped considerably with manufacturing efficiencies, making them a more attractive option for energy providers.

“Clean energy growth is real and is the future of our economy, not to our detriment. We need to spread that narrative,” he said.

He is encouraged that although U.S. President Donald Trump has pulled the Americans out of the Paris climate agreement, he said other countries, U.S. companies and the state of California are pressing ahead with adaptive energy use and production measures.

“It was very concerning in that if the U.S. president would not move on this, why should anyone else? But clean energy growth continues to drive forward,” he said, as more economic leaders begin to realize what is at stake for the global economy.

Warwick Sears stressed that the Okanagan Valley will continue to grow in population over the next decade.

“This is a safe, clean, beautiful place to live and there is lots of opportunity here. But we need to plan ahead and be ready for that growth,” said Warwick Sears.

“We will have to reduce the risk that otherwise has the potential to provide a prime breeding ground for invasive mussels, while flooding will bring in more nutrients which will spawn algae growth and create shallow gravel bars ideal for Eurasian milfoil growth.

“We are not helpless to respond but we need to think about extreme weather situations and the impact that can have on all spheres of our responsibility. There is too much at risk if we don’t.”