Season 2 Premiere: Lina Azeez in Coquitlam

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In the Freshwater Stream season two premiere, Danielle speaks with Lina Azeez, Coquitlam watershed resident and campaign manager for Watershed Watch Salmon Society, on the devastating flood events that occurred in the lower mainland in November 2021 and how we must rethink how we manage for flooding to better protect communities and wild salmon.

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Transcript

Danielle | 0.00

I'm Danielle Paydli and welcome back to season two of the Freshwater Stream, a podcast about BC’s watersheds and the people who care about them. 

We are speaking today about the devastating flooding in southern British Columbia this past November, 2021.

Around the province, thousands of people were stranded as highways and rail lines were blocked by landslides. The Port of Vancouver was effectively severed from the rest of Canada, causing supply chain problems that could take months to resolve. People were forced from their homes, lost their lives and many animals perished in the floods.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada has announced the insured damage is $450 million, making it the costliest natural disaster in BC’s history.

There has been so much loss and destruction, but also so many stories of British Columbians stepping up with strength and generosity. Fraser Valley fishing guides moved people and supplies between communities disconnected by landslides, and volunteer search and rescue teams saved hundreds of people stranded by landslides and trapped by floodwaters.

Community Member | 1:22

Entering the flood zone, the first thing that hit us was the smell. Landslides bring up a particular raw earth scent, but this was more. The smell of diesel, manure, septic tanks, fertilizers, and dying animals was all rolled into one.The calls were coming in so fast we divided teams up into our personal vehicles, to expand our reach. I drove my truck into the flood zone, until the water was over my bumper. We launched the jet boat right into a farmer’s field and started into a long day of searching homes for people left behind.

Danielle | 1.53

Today I’m interviewing Lina Azeez, who lives along the Coquitlam River and works with Watershed Watch Salmon Society. Lina and her team have been calling for better flood infrastructure for salmon and communities in the lower mainland for the past several years. Thank you so much for joining us, Lina. I’d love to start off our conversation by knowing a little bit more about your home. Can you take us on a little walk through the Coquitlam watershed?

Lina | 2:16

The city of Port Coquitlam is surrounded by water on three sides, we've got the Fraser River, and into the Fraser River flows the Pitt River, which is on one side of Port Coquitlam, and then the Coquitlam River on the other side. So it's a very watery place, which is kind of what drew me to it, I think. 

Working, doing all the work I do with floodplains, you’d think I'd want to not live in a floodplain. But, I was drawn to the fact that I could live close to water and just living half a block, a block away from a salmon spawning, a salmon-bearing river, it was very exciting to me. So, I enjoy going for walks out along the trails, taking my bike out there, and just watching the eagles and the herons fishing. 

And this is my first season living here, so I've been down to the water a number of times now to watch the salmon spawning as well. I was there just a few days after we had all that high water come through and there were salmon carcasses kind of spread out along the riverbanks, as a good reminder to me of how salmon nourish our forests, as their bodies get spread out in different places. 

Danielle | 3:30

That’s beautiful. The watershed’s obviously the real lifeblood of the Coquitlam community, making the recent floods all that much more devastating. I know floods are common to this area. I mean it is a flood plain, but what’s the difference about what happened this year? How did this happen? 

Lina | 3:47 

The recent floodings that we've seen in high water levels kind of started with a series of atmospheric rivers coming through the Pacific Northwest, all starting in and around the Philippines, from what I understand. As global warming progresses, we're seeing increasing, sea temperature rise. And as oceans warm, we have more water being evaporated into the atmosphere and creating larger and larger storm systems.

So, before we used to have, I don't know if you remember, we used to have ‘Pineapple Express’. You know, it started somewhere around Hawaii and we have a spate of warm rain in the winter time and then we’d kind of be done with it. But now we're having these much larger systems and the term has changed from ‘Pineapple Express’ to ‘atmospheric rivers’, because these are just massive amounts of water. 

I think I heard one person describe it ‘as much water as there is in the Mississippi River’, just like flowing overhead, over us, and just dumping massive amounts of water land once these systems hit land. 

So unfortunately, what happened here was a combination of things. We had this massive atmospheric river comes through dumping, I think in the first one in 48 hours dumped over 250 millimetres of rain. And often in November, we get about 250 millimetres of rain for the entire month — so this is almost a month's worth of rain dumped over two days. 

We saw a lot of washouts along major highways in the southwest part of BC. In addition to that, you know, water knows no boundaries. So we had the Nooksack River just south of the border, starting to overfill with all of this water and it flooded its banks. It actually changed the course of the river so that it kind of came back into its natural river course, flowed across the border into Abbotsford, into an area now known as Sumas prairie, which used to be known as Sumas Lake, and then that impacted thousands of people living in the Fraser Valley of BC. 

We of course, saw a lot of localized flooding as well in other parts of the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, but that was the biggest impact that we saw that really shocked people into starting to think about flooding and the massive impacts of flooding and and for many people, just realize that there used to be a whole different land use in the Sumas prairie — before it used to be a lake, it used to be a wetland. And it's — one of its many jobs was to hold water and that was taken away. So people were suddenly realizing the impacts that we have on land and how that, in turn, continues to impact us over and over again.

Danielle | 6:32

It was certainly shocking for many of us throughout BC, and actually throughout the world to witness. I know for many of us, we were thinking, climate scientists have been warning us for years that we are going to start seeing the impacts of not only a changing climate but that compounded with how we are using and in many cases, abusing the land and the water. But regardless, there is still this collective shock that this has happened in our own backyard - why weren’t we prepared for this as a community? I know there are flood infrastructure in place so why didn’t that protect our communities in the Lower Mainland? 

Lina | 7:09  

For at least a decade, we've been talking not just Watershed Watch, but like, a number of experts, especially experts in flood management, have been raising the alarms that the flood infrastructure in and around the Lower Mainland is old, crumbly, needs to be updated. And unfortunately, that has not translated into action. 

There have been countless plans and many different strategies and lots of talk about the need to upgrade our flood infrastructure. But that work hasn't happened. So unfortunately, because the dikes were not up to standard, even for a one in 100 year flood, which is what we had, they overtopped, they breached, there was just too much water and they were not able to hold. 

So what we're seeing is some of this grey infrastructure, which is what we call hardened surfaces, like dikes where you kind of channelize rivers and you remove the natural floodplain and you put in great, like, concrete walls. We call that grey infrastructure. So we're here seeing a very typical example of how grey infrastructure can fail us. It needs to constantly be upgraded. This type of infrastructure depreciates over time. And if we don't invest in it seriously, like has not been done, yeah, it can, it can fail, and it can fail very badly and the repercussions can be very harmful to life.

Danielle |  8:36  

So as we look to heal our communities and our watersheds and rebuild, what is the alternative to the status quo, to this grey infrastructure?

Lina  8:47  

What we need to do is take a step back and think about where we decide to place our communities. Throughout history, people gravitate towards valleys and floodplains, because that's where the most healthiest, most nutritious soil is to grow food. So it totally makes sense that we would settle in and around rivers and in floodplains. 

I think we've gotten so comfortable building dikes and walls and putting in massive pump stations and thinking we can manage water that we've continued to build and build and build in floodplains. And we continue to put people more and more at risk.   

And what we need to do is, start having those really difficult discussions about moving people. Perhaps returning some land back to nature, and rewilding some areas. Giving the river room to actually do what it naturally does, which is flood and at the same time, doing that will also will not only benefit and protect our communities, but will also provide a number of benefits to salmon and sturgeon, and all of the other animals and birds that use these waterways so we're not continuing to take away and destroy their habitat, we're rebuilding habitat and at the same time providing room for the river to flood. 

Danielle| 10:12

As a salmon advocate, can you tell us a bit about how the flooding has affected salmon?

Lina  10:19  

In the short term, we know that every odd year, so 2019, 2021, 2023 is supposed to be a large pink salmon spawning year in the main stem of the Fraser River, in an area we call the Heart of the Fraser. So this is between Mission and Hope. And in this part of the river, pink salmon come in and they're spawning right in the main stem and it's just this wonderful sight to see. All the salmon splashing around and fishers love it, birds love it, everybody loves it. 

Unfortunately, with these floods, we expect that a lot of the salmon eggs that were laid in the main stem of the Fraser River have been washed out. We of course won’t know the true impact of this until two years from now, so 2023, when the eggs that were laid this year are supposed to return as adults, in two years time. So, that is our assumption based on what we know about this salmon cycle. During the course of the last, you know, couple of weeks, through November, chum, coho, sockeye, Chinook, they've all been making their way upstream as well and into the side channels and tributaries of the Fraser River. So up the Vedder and the Chilliwack, for example and what we have seen are eyewitness reports of salmon getting lost in fields, in golf courses and parks, trying to find their way back to their home streams to spawn. We hope many of them were able to access their home streams. I know, once the waters stopped raging after a couple of days, there were more eyewitness reports of salmon spawning in their home streams. But we're really not going to know the impact of this flooding, in terms of the impact on their eggs or even on their ability to reach the spawning grounds before dying, and for another four years for some of these other species. So the immediate repercussions are possible inability to access their habitats, and salmon redds being washed away. But we're not going to understand it for another few years.

Danielle | 12:21

So let’s talk about where we go from here. How can we better prepare our communities to defend them from flooding, while ensuring the government doesn’t continue to maintain the same old approach to watershed and flood management that contributed to the crisis we experienced this year and continue to put salmon in jeopardy?

Lina | 12:39  

We definitely need strong government leadership and we need long term stable funding, so that local governments can work in partnership with civil society - with civil organizations. 

Flooding impacts so many people that represent a lot of different interests, or species, for example, like Watershed Watch is super concerned about the impacts of flood control structures on salmon. So we would definitely want to be at these tables. 100% First Nation communities need to be at these tables, because a lot of them are located in the floodplain and many of them are not protected by flood infrastructure. So the way they protect the communities while also ensuring the health of salmon must be considered. So definitely First Nations need to be part of this conversation. 

Local governments, of course, farmers as well, and I actually think farmers have a really important role to play when it comes to flooding. Unfortunately, they are located in floodplains and governments need to support and work with farmers to look at ways to use fields as areas that could be flooded, should they need to be flooded so that we're not impacting communities downstream. It's something that they practice in the prairies and it could be something that we talked about to manage floodwater during high water events in the lower Fraser as well. 

We definitely need to have more academic experts — people who have a way of looking at water not just in an engineering way or not just as hydrology. We need to be bringing people together who can look at the many different intersectional impacts of flooding and those are the people who need to be at the table.

Danielle | 14:15

So, I'm hearing that we really need to invest in our communities and work together in a new way of rebuilding that focuses on our natural defences - our watersheds, wetlands, rivers, forests. So what would success look like if these solutions were implemented? Do you have an example you could share?

Lina | 14:32  

So I can give you an example of a waterway in my community. It's called Maple Creek. And Maple Creek is a fish-bearing stream. It’s got an awesome volunteer stewardship group that's been advocating for this waterway for a long time. And Maple Creek unfortunately, has got a dike running across it, as well as a pump station that's fish unfriendly, which means every time that there's a lot of water behind the dike in Maple Creek, the pumps turn on, the pumps start to pull water, and when they pull water, they're also going to be pulling fish and amphibians into into the mechanism of the pump, and then push them out, pour them out, onto the other side of the dike. However, these pumps grind up fish. So anything that goes through it will be killed and ground up, which is a really terrible example of infrastructure that really needs to be changed — that is definitely not fish friendly. 

However, with our advocacy, and the advocacy of the Maple Creek streamkeepers, the city of Port Coquitlam has decided to upgrade that pump station to be fish friendly. So that kind of great technology does exist, it is still a grey infrastructure solution because it's a pump, it's not nature based or green in any way. But it's infrastructure that will actually safely move fish through its mechanism without killing it, which is an absolutely fantastic thing to do. In addition to upgrading or having plans to upgrade the Maple Creek pump station, the city plans to do some riparian habitat restoration upstream of the dike as well. So we're creating improved quality of habitat for fish so they have a good safe place to lay their eggs and to rear before heading out to the ocean.

Danielle | 16:23  

That's wonderful. That's a beautiful kind of success story. And it also goes to show that not everything has a one size fits all solution — that within each watershed there's different solutions. But you've also highlighted some of those bigger level, overarching ways to build more resilient watersheds that we’ve mentioned before, like ensuring local people and First Nations have the resources to manage their home watersheds and investing in natural flood infrastructure. Are there examples of other governments or communities that are doing this on the kind of scale we’d need to see here in BC? (now to 25:55)

Lina |  17:00  

These types of solutions, including from, like, leadership, and governance styles, and all the way down to implementation on the ground has been done in other parts of the world. Just south of the border in Washington State, there's a great program called Floodplains By Design that actually is this collaborative body that brings state funding to counties and municipalities to do some of the work when it comes to setting back dikes, restoring salmon habitat. 

They work with farmers, they work with local nations, and they work with municipalities to have some of these hard conversations on the ground with people who are affected, so that they're building more resilient communities, along rivers that will flood. So it's really great to see some of the work they're doing and we are collaborating with them more and more so that we can learn from them and bring some of those teachings into a more BC specific, Fraser River specific, context. 

Similarly, the Dutch are known globally for their work managing water. Most of their country is at or below sea level. And they have a really great program called Room for the River, where, after a really devastating flood in the mid 90s, where 250,000 plus people had to be evacuated, and they lost a lot of livestock, where they worked with farmers to relocate farms, set back the dikes and actually create a more naturalized river system, so that water wasn’t just, you know, rushing through a channelized waterway, and undercutting banks then eroding dikes and causing all this chaos, but move slower and was more manageable, in a more natural way. 

So, we're not asking for anything that's so crazy and out of the box. We know this can be done, we just need government leadership to say, yes, we're on board, we're going to do it and we're committed, we're committed to doing so.

 

Danielle | 18:58

Thank you so much Lina and to everyone who contributed to the podcast. Ending on a positive note, in their mandates the current government has committed to creating a watershed security fund. This could be sustainable and independent funding for communities to build the capacity and resilience required to secure the health of their local watersheds, including the fish, wildlife and nature that depend on them. But the proof is in the pudding and we need to see action from the government. If the unprecedented impacts of fires and floods this past year don’t demonstrate the need to invest in our watersheds — what will? We plan to dig into this more in a future episode.

Those of us working on this podcast are also helping to connect folks who care about their watersheds across this province through the CodeBlue BC plan. You can find out more about how to get involved, connect with other people who care about, are taking action and working on solutions in their local watersheds at codebluebc.ca. Or hear from folks in communities across BC and share what’s happening in your watershed by joining our online community on Instagram or Facebook.

Thank you for listening to this podcast created by the Canadian Freshwater Alliance in collaboration with our partners, Watershed Watch Salmon Society, and as always a special shout out to the audio genius of Mr. Brenden MacDonald. 

Let’s leave this heavy conversation by listening to folks, living in the lower mainland, sharing their love letters to their home watersheds.

Community Voice 2 | 20:24

The Chilliwack River Valley has lots of little steep, fast cold streams, where you might look and think nothing lives. But if you look in the hidden spots, under logs or rocks, or under the turbulence of the water itself, you'll find salmon and trout, and all kinds of things. There are tailed frogs that live in these cold fast streams. It's just amazing to see these tiny little frogs that can thrive in what looks like such a tough environment.

Community Voice 3 | 20:47

I'm so grateful to have grown up in a community such as Coquitlam. And living here has provided me with so many opportunities to recreate outside and near water, from watching the salmon spawn in Hyde Creek, to swimming up at Buntzen Lake, to biking along the Pitt River dikes.

Community Voice  4 | 21:07

I fell in love with Stony Creek in 2003, when I first saw Chum and coho salmon spawning. In places, the fish were as long as the creek was wide and in the middle of a city too. I enjoy being a steward of the creek and a voice for the salmon who need clean water to survive and can't speak for themselves.