B.C. flooding made worse by forestry practices

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Oh no, what’s that in the distance? Consequences, you say? Jamie Morris via Unsplash

People saw this coming

Logging practices and other forms of environmental interference play in a major role in BC’s severe floods and their catastrophic impacts over the past two weeks. Beginning on November 13, when an atmospheric river brought record-breaking rainfall to many communities in BC’s south and interior, the province began to experience massive landslides, overflowed rivers, stranded towns, and destroyed highways – all of which contributed to NDP Premier John Horgan declaring a state of emergency. The state of emergency was declared to help mitigate the stress on transportation systems, aid in the transport of essential goods, and support the province in the recovery process. The state of emergency applies to the whole province, and ensures resources can be delivered in a coordinated effort to protect the people of British Columbia.

Approximately 17,775 people were evacuated from their homes, and many vehicles were trapped by landslides, unable to move for days. Search and rescue teams were deployed to the landslide, and the body count is up to four at present. In coordination with the Red Cross, British Columbia’s government has secured financial assistance for those placed under an evacuation order, and those eligible houses can receive up to $2,000. Also, in response to floods, residents and essential workers in BC who must travel to or pass through the United States are exempt from COVID entry requirements.

In response to the floods, the First Nations leadership council in BC has called upon the provincial government to declare an indefinite state of emergency. They stated that the extreme and continuing weather events prove that it is no longer just a climate crisis but an ongoing climate emergency, and people’s lives are at risk. Many First Nations communities were left stranded by the floods with very little warning and have been left to navigate the complicated provincial funding that doesn’t address the needs of their communities.

The floods in BC are extreme and were made worse by the logging practices in the province. Clear cutting is a method of tree removal where all trees in an area are removed. It is the most common form of tree removal because it is an easy and efficient way to gather lumber. Unfortunately, it is also a major reason for the severe flooding in the province.

The Carillon spoke to Younes Alila, a professor in the Department of Forest Resources Management at the University of British Columbia. His research focuses on how forest management, logging, and forest disturbance affect the way the natural environment is able to respond to an influx of moisture.

B.C.’s logging has affected the watershed, an area of land that drains streams and rainfall to common outlets such as the outlet of a reservoir or the mouth of a bay, and, according to Alila, “Most watersheds have been heavily logged over the last couple of decades. And when we say heavily logged, you’re looking at 30 per cent of an entire watershed, 40 per cent, 50 per cent, even 60 per cent of an entire watershed.”

“In a nutshell, my research over the last 10, 15 years has repeatedly corroborated the following conclusion that the flood regime, particularly in the snow environment, is highly sensitive to logging and sometimes depending on where you log, even just 15 per cent, 20 per cent of the watershed being logged could actually change a once in every hundred years [flood] event into [an every] twenty years event very easily, because the effect of logging on the flood regime depends not only on the amount of cut blocks but how much of the watershed was logged percentage wise,” said Alila.

Alila added that “the larger the flood event, the more frequent it becomes. And therefore, we’re not just affecting the one in five, the one in 10, the one in 20, we’re affecting the full range of return period. Changes like this to the flooding regime have major implications and consequences on the geomorphology of the channel on sediment, transport downstream on water quality on fish habitat and aquatic life from the stream. So the flooding regime in general, whether the high flows or the low flows, is like the blood traveling in our veins; anything goes wrong with it, then the whole ecosystem is basically in jeopardy.”

In summary, clear-cut logging in BC, which is still a common practice, has caused the forests to no longer perform as they should, and the clear-cut areas take decades to return to their previous functionality; because of this, floods will only continue and become more frequent.

Climate change only exasperates the problems already produced by logging. Climate change is creating bigger, more extreme storms that push the already unstable environments to flood more intensely. In addition, the frequent and intense forest fires are creating soils in the watershed that repel water, turning the areas into a giant runoff. More research needs to be done to see how climate change and logging work together, but there is no doubt that they, in conjunction, are making the situation worse.

British Columbia is trying to repair the already massive damage caused by the water and simultaneously take shelter from another storm system that has been moving through the province in the last couple of days. They haven’t had time to breathe, and according to professor Alalia, “this is just the tip of the iceberg, and we are up for big surprises.” Scientists have been warning the government and the public of this for over a decade. Unfortunately, the logging practices in BC are aggressive, proper rules aren’t often followed, sections are clear cut too close to each other too frequently, and only time will tell if the government takes enough action to reduce the chances of these major floods happening in the future.

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