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COVER STORY: Weathering the coming change
For more than 30 years, Jerry Keulen has farmed the fertile soils next to Boundary Bay. A second generation Delta farmer, Keulen runs Seabreeze Dairy Farm, where he grows forage grass and corn on his 60-hectare property, in addition to his dairy cows.
But as he looks upon the dike that skirts his property, he says he knows change is coming.
“Climate change,” he says. “The big concern is if the sea level rises, we’re in trouble. So how are we going to protect ourselves?”
Keulen, a member of Delta’s Agricultural Advisory Committee, was one of the local farmers who took part in the recent Agriculture and Climate Change Regional Adaptation Strategies pilot project.
The project brought together politicians and representatives from the agricultural industry to look at how farmland would be affected by climate change, and what could be done to mitigate those effects.
Among the threats to local agriculture were not only rising sea levels, but higher temperatures, increased extreme weather and rainfall, and increased salinity in the water table.
“Salinity really affects crop production,” says Keulen. “But we need to experiment and research how we can keep the salinity down, and that takes time.”
That’s why he says it’s important to start formulating an action plan sooner, rather than later.
“It’s important to be proactive,” says Keulen. “We have to prepare ourselves.”
The project, which was funded by the federal and provincial governments, the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, and the Corporation of Delta, outlined a number recommendations to help protect Delta and its farmlands. In addition to dike and drainage upgrades and emergency planning for areas that may face inundation, the project also suggested more research and monitoring is needed to be done to properly assess the climate change risk.
It’s a risk that Keulen believes would be unwise to ignore.
According to Metro Vancouver climate projections, an increase in the mean annual temperature in Delta of 1.7 C, compared to the 1961-1990 baseline, is expected by the year 2050.
Developing new crop varieties that will be able to withstand the warmer weather and longer growing seasons, as well as the changing soil conditions, will be key to the survival of local farms.
“The land we farm is right next to the dike,” says Keulen. “If the sea level rises, if salt water starts coming over the dike, that’s going to impact us.”
However, climate change will impact far more in Delta than just the agricultural industry.
Dr. Stephen Sheppard is a UBC professor specializing in climate change and says many of the low-lying residential areas in Ladner are at the greatest risk of being inundated should rising sea levels breach the dikes that encircle Delta.
“Because of the high tidal range, much of Delta is already below sea level at high tide,” he says.
Provincial government guidelines for coastal communities warn of a sea level rise of up to 1.2 metres by the end of the century. But as the sea level is rising, Sheppard says the land that makes up Delta’s Fraser River floodplain is slowly sinking as it settles.
“Delta, because it’s a floodplain, and always flooded before, it could be at risk of flooding again [as sea levels rise],” he says.
To help drive the point home Sheppard has helped develop a video game that allows users to visualize the effects of climate change here in Delta, and see what methods of mitigation are most effective.
Called Future Delta, the computer simulation was developed by UBC’s Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning, working with the Corporation of Delta and the Delta School Board.
The game allows users to implement different strategies, from increasing dikes and drainage, to reducing the municipality’s carbon footprint in an effort to reduce the effects of climate change. Sheppard is also the author of Visualizing Climate Change. The book details the many possible effects of climate change on Delta, and is available through school and public libraries locally.
“None of the solutions are ideal, and all take a lot of time and money,” he says. “It’s not going to be a quick process, but that’s okay, there’s time. We have to be open to a wide range of possible options.”
Increased diking, for example, is costly, and would likely displace entire communities, such as the Port Guichon waterfront, which is built on the present dike, as well as damage the environmentally-sensitive foreshore area.
One of the more audacious - and expensive - ideas to protect Ladner Village is to dike off Canoe Pass and connect Westham Island to the mainland, while installing a tidal gate at the entrance to Ladner Harbour.
That’s why Delta mayor Lois Jackson says it’s important to study the potential problem before embarking on any costly remedies.
“We’re not going to run out and spend $1 billion on the dikes if we don’t have to,” she says.
The Corporation of Delta has been looking at the issue of climate change for past 10 years, taking part in numerous climate change studies and projects aimed identifying the likelihood of climate change impacts, and trying to find solutions.
“This has been on out radar for a very long time,” says Jackson. “A tremendous amount of work has already been.”
But just what path the Corporation will take will likely be left up to future mayors and councils, Jackson admits.
“Right now we are setting the groundwork for the future.”
Sheppard says its important to not only look at reactive measures, such as increased diking and drainage, but look at preventative ones as well.
Reducing its carbon footprint is one way the Corporation can help prevent climate change, even if it is on an admittedly small scale.
Many of the infrastructure upgrades that reduce carbon emissions by using less energy or generating power onsite, such as geothermal heating and solar technology, can save money in the long run.
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” says Sheppard. “There’s the potential for economic gain. This is an opportunity.”
The Corporation of Delta has already endorsed the provincial guidelines to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.
For now, Jackson says the first steps are to continue studying the gradual changes in local climate and continue to research the many options available.
“To be forewarned is to be forearmed.”