A flood just waiting to happen

By Briony Penn, May 2012

The logging happens on private land, but the damage and costs are borne downstream.

In the last 10 years alone, Vancouver Island has had more severe flooding problems damaging homes, infrastructure and fish habitat than in the last 50. In the last five years, we’ve seen disaster-level flooding in central and southern Island (Dec 2007), Sooke and Langford (Jan 2009), Duncan (Nov 2009), central and north Island (Sept 2010, Dec 2010), and southeast Island (Nov 2011). Every year, sometimes twice a year, severe events are causing damages. The once exceptional has become the norm.

The tab for the worst damage is picked up by the federal/provincial Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangement—the public purse. Since 2008, the federal and provincial governments have provided $125 million dollars for 137 flood mitigation projects in BC with a sizeable chunk of this going to Vancouver Island—money to build dykes, pump stations, flood boxes and other engineered facilities. 

But what is causing the flooding and who should pay? That is the question that Rick James, a Courtenay resident, a 25-year tree planting veteran who lives just above the Tsolum floodplain has been asking. And he wasn’t satisfied when a hydrologist’s report on key factors affecting the pattern of high flows on the Tsolum River fell on his desk last year. The report emphasized the role of climate change on downstream flooding of Courtenay, and downplayed the significant logging in the watershed by TimberWest. 

The report states that harvesting had decreased since the heyday of the ’60s, and therefore was unlikely to have increased the frequency and intensity of flooding. James’ first thought was, where is the detailed data to prove this? The report included only one sentence about TimberWest’s assessment that 20 percent of the Tsolum watershed was clearcut. James asks, “What about the accelerated logging practices in headwaters of the valley’s rivers and streams over the past 10 years, which is essentially stripping bare the higher elevation forests where the biggest impacts to flooding occur?”

The watershed in question can be seen clearly from the slopes of Mount Washington, looking to the northeast. The clearcuts stand out prominently when the snowpack builds up, next to the darker patches of the forested area. These are the upper basins of the Tsolum River. James knows the watershed inside and out since he worked many years restoring its clearcuts as a tree planter. “I’ve seen the scale of the logging taking place; I’ve flown over it and to say that logging has no impact on the flooding just doesn’t make sense.” 

In an editorial to the local newspaper, James pointed out that TimberWest, which owns two-thirds of the watershed, paid for a third of the hydrology report and set the terms of reference. “How could there be any objectivity?” 

James’ objections are not alone. Concerned groups and politicians from Port Alberni, Oyster River, Campbell River, Qualicum Beach, Sooke and other communities downstream of private land logging are also asking the same questions. Part of the problem is they can’t get answers on the rate of cut in their watersheds because these are private lands and owners are under no obligation to publish accurate data and maps of the cut area. 

Secondly, there are no restrictions on the amount cut on private lands. The Private Managed Forest Land Act is “results-based” with vague goals about conservation and fewer regulations than even private land in municipalities. For example, only a certain number of trees in the riparian zone have to be left. The only checks are a monitoring presence by the Private Managed Forest Land Council—which many critics refer to as “the fox watching the chicken coop.” The public can lodge a complaint about how things are being done on private forest land, and technically the Council staff should investigate. But the Environmental Law Centre has judged this process ineffective.

And who dares complain? In small communities, most people and institutions have relationships with the logging corporations (aka asset managers). Municipalities and local stewardship groups receive funds from these companies; people are directly employed by them or hired as consultants and contractors. Understandably, there is often a reluctance to speak out against them.

As Rick James attempted to get clarity on the hydrology report, many of these inherent problems were highlighted. Government scientist Peter Tschaplinksi was asked to comment on the report and declined, though not before stating, “For watersheds that have eroding soils and steep slopes, it is hard to discount human development as a major factor out of hand. That would raise red flags for me.”

Greg Phelps, Courtenay’s ex-mayor who called for the study in the first place, was candid: “Concerns were raised when we received this report and we wondered if it was as comprehensive as it could have been. The City of Courtenay is on the funnel end of all these watersheds and there is no question that the combination of logging and climate change are impacting the Courtenay floodplain. How do we know TimberWest hasn’t greenwashed the whole thing? It is a huge liability.” (Phelps was one of the incumbents ousted from office shortly after the release of the report by a pro-development slate of candidates.)

Staff hydrologist for TimberWest, Domenico Iannidinardo, stands by the results. “The report concluded that although forest harvesting can impact peak river flows in some circumstances, large climatic cycles outweigh the effects of modern forest management practices as they relate to the most significant flood events.” When asked why recent data wasn’t included, he released some data to Focus on logging and roading in the watershed. 

Dave Gooding, past provincial hydrologist and consultant to the local river restoration society (that has received assistance from TimberWest), did a preliminary analysis of this data. He points to one sub-basin that is approaching high risk of damaging water flows, with 26 percent of the area clearcut. According to the provincial guidelines, logging anything over 20 percent moves into “significant risk” and over 30 percent is “high risk” of flooding. Moreover, he notes, the logging has mostly gone on in the transient snow zone (the area that you see from Mount Washington), which experiences the rain-on snow events that cause the greatest peaks in flows, so they have a higher than normal impact. 

TimberWest’s Iannidinardo argues that his model adjusts for this and puts it in the context of clearcutting averaging 22 percent across the whole watershed he manages. But Gooding notes, “Small impacts are important, especially if it’s only the top five percent of a flood that is crossing your road or living room.”

He calls the area “a watershed on the edge, for both its fisheries and its capacity to handle extreme flows.” Illustrating what this could mean, Rick James says: “If two successive two-year cycles of pink salmon spawn are flushed out by floods, it probably means the death knell for this run.” 

Gooding laments the already mighty effort needed to deal with damages from historic logging to the Tsolum, both for fish egg and fry survival, and to increase the channel’s capacity to handle extreme flows—and worries about TimberWest’s future plans, 

In its literature for shareholders (many of whom are government pensionholders), TimberWest states it will be continuing with its accelerated rate of cut for another five years at least. Ianniddinardo states, “We retain the management prerogative to adjust plans in consideration of markets while always meeting our commitments to sustainable forest management.” Rick James feels this translates to “business-as-usual—more flooding, more damage to our fish, and more public monies picking up the tab.”

Briony Penn PhD is a fifth-generation Vancouver Islander, artist, journalist, environmental educator and mother. She is the author of The Kids Book of Geography (Kids Can Press) and a A Year on the Wild Side.