How a ‘perfect storm’ could destroy the Musqueam reservation

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[Editor’s note: This is the second-last instalment of a six-part series exploring life and risk on the Lower Mainland’s floodplain, the stretches of flat land in the region between the Fraser River and the coast. If you haven’t read it yet, we invite you to read the first four stories that ran earlier this week.]

Climate change is already at Musqueam First Nation’s doorstep.

January saw one of the highest royal tides in recent years, according to the Federal Hydrographic Service, at 5.48 metres. Waves crashed over the edge of the Musqueam Low Preserve, which sits on high ground along the banks of the Fraser River, nearly engulfing the community’s boat launch.

A flooding of the river during high water isn’t such a big danger here because it’s the mouth of the river where it meets the Salish Sea, says Norman Point, who runs the band’s public works department . Instead, he worries about coastal flooding as sea levels rise and the potential for a future “perfect storm”.

“If it’s accompanied by a lot of rain and wind, it’s not a good thing,” he said.

Tides may have nothing to do with climate change, but winter storms do. They get stronger and if a storm occurs at the same time as a winter tide, the shores will suffer heavy damage.

Norman, 60, and his brother Ricky, 59, who also works in the public works department, have always lived on the reserve. It is located near Southwest Vancouver, nestled among farms, mega-mansions and golf courses on the edge of the city’s Dunbar-Southlands neighborhood. Even before settlement, this place at the mouth of the Fraser River, where it joins the Salish Sea, has always been the main winter village of the Musqueam people.

Living so close to water means flooding has always been a priority.

“My grandfather had a boat tied up on his back porch,” Ricky said. “His house was on stilts. So that’s how they did it at the time. My father used to tell us that in the winter they had to get in and row to 51st, [the avenue that leads to Vancouver]because the water went all the way up.

Since the 1970s, houses on the reserve have been built on concrete slab foundations. The houses do not have basements, as they would be prone to flooding.

“If you dig a hole a few feet deep at high tide, you’ll find water,” Ricky said.

A water view of a gravelly shoreline on a cloudy day.  The crest waves wash over a section of the shoreline that slopes down to the water, where a ramp once stood.  There is an orange cone at the edge of the bank where it meets the river.

During the high tide in January 2022, water covered the ramp Musqueam residents use to launch their boats.
Photo by Ricky Point.

With climate change, a sea level rise of one meter is expected by 2100. A flood mitigation study for the reserve is underway and is expected to be completed in the fall. Group members will review and give feedback after that.

It’s a “sensitive” issue for members because big changes are on the table, Norman says.

“It’s not an easy task at all,” Norman said. “Are we backing down? Start building in another area and move all the houses? Where do we raise them? What is practical? Of course, this comes with a lot of expense. There are always community impacts no matter which option you choose.

For example, if the band were to surround the reservation with dykes and super dykes — as the city of Richmond does — it would restrict significant access to the river.

The Musqueam, a Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓-speaking people, had camps and villages throughout the region for thousands of years before settlement. After the Indian Act, they were restricted to a small fraction of their original territory. The majority of the reserve is leased to other parties – with expiration dates between 2032 and 2073 – resulting in a community of approximately 65 hectares. About 1,300 of their members live on the reserve, with a waiting list of more than 300.

As the seas rise, there is even less land for the Musqueam to work with.

    A map depicts the main Musqueam reservation in light grey.  It's a form of sneaker, with what may look like laces facing Pacific Spirit Regional Park.

Musqueam’s main reservation is in the center of this map, the sneaker-shaped piece of land outlined in gray. This 2016 map shows what a 500-year flood would look like if it occurred in 2100 with a sea level rise of one meter and the First Nation did not add any flood mitigation infrastructure. The Musqueam Golf Course, on the bottom right of the reserve facing the water, is most at risk. Opposite the reserve is Sea Island, home to the airport, the breakwaters of which are not shown on this map but can be viewed here. The color spectrum starts with yellow, less than 0.1 meters of flooding (probably underground), to dark purple: more than three meters of flooding.
Map courtesy of Fraser Basin Council, prepared by Northwest Hydraulic Consultants. You can see more detailed maps of various scenarios on their website.

‘Enclave’

It is not the only First Nation to have a reserve in a flood zone.

In the Lower Mainland, there are 61 reserves belonging to 26 First Nations that are vulnerable to flooding, according to the Fraser Basin Council.

For the Kwantlen Nation, for example, it’s an existential crisis. McMillan Island, which they call home, is expected to be underwater by 2100. In 2012, floodwaters slammed into their band office, filling their basement and meeting room. But the members do not want to leave their homes.

“For many of us, we became landlocked next to the Fraser when the reservation commissioners arrived,” said Tyrone McNeil, chief of the Stó꞉lō Tribal Council and member of the Seabird Island Band near Agassiz.

“A hundred years from now we are going to lose a lot of reserve land because it will either be under water or just too expensive to protect… We need new additions to the reserves away from the river, off the plain floodable. We are not going to leave our lands and enter fee simple lands.

Over his many years in various leadership positions, McNeil has come to find that the way Fraser River communities deal with flooding is too “piecemeal”.

“Historically, all we have had is local governments and First Nations fighting over inadequate proposal-based funds. One year you are funded, the next year you are not. It’s so punctual by nature. It’s not strategic. If I put a dike [in one community], what does it mean downstream? This does not take into account these impacts.

The sentiment is echoed by other local leaders, who say grants from senior governments often don’t go to the jurisdictions that need them the most. Their demand is also costly, especially for small governments. In a recent interview with the Vancouver Sun, the mayor of Abbotsford compared the grant system to going to a casino in Las Vegas.

It is even more difficult for First Nations to fund flood solutions because they do not have the same tax base as local governments. Katzie First Nation, for example, relied on volunteers to build sandbag barriers to keep the Fraser River rising in 2018 at bay.

McNeil chairs a new group called the Emergency Planning Secretariat, founded in 2019, to advocate for the 31 First Nations near the Fraser River. They have met with First Nations communities as well as higher levels of government and are on their way to becoming a not-for-profit corporation. He hopes the Coast Salish-led EPS will create a coordinated flood management strategy recognized by the provincial and federal governments.

“There are some really tough decisions to make,” McNeil said. “But who better to make them than those of us who are directly affected?”

“What Colonization Has Done”

“If you go back 200 years, there’s no industry called logging,” McNeil said. “It would take between three and six months for the rain that hits the top of the mountain to find its way into the river. You have huge expanses of trees. You have all kinds of vegetation and everything under it. It will simply be absorbed and release the water slowly.

A 2021 study of the Lower Fraser found that today only 101 of an estimated 659 square kilometers of historic floodplain and salmon habitat remain, lost with urbanization.

As a result, water is coming down the Fraser more powerfully than it has in the past, McNeil says.

“With climate change, this will only increase the volume and speed of water coming down the tributaries, washing away all the gravel and rock… That’s what colonization has done.”

Additionally, Indigenous peoples can no longer depend on the Fraser for their livelihood in the same way.

McNeil fears the road to 2100 will continue as usual. In other words, ignore what the Fraser is trying to teach us.

Does a dike really have to be located where it is? Should it be pushed back? Should old waterways be reopened to help divert and absorb flood waters? He hopes floodplain communities will ask these questions rather than just want more and bigger levees.

“Imagine the volume of water that could be absorbed if we opened up half of these lost rivers! Don’t worry about flooding anymore. The beauty is that when we do that, we restore and rehabilitate fish and salmon habitat.

Clues to climate change

On a rainy spring day, the Point brothers stroll through the reservation along Salish Drive.

Ricky remembers the 2015 storm surge, the region’s worst in 50 years. Fortunately, the waters receded. But then there was the atmospheric river last November, which brought the heavy rains that caused the devastating flooding of Sumas Prairie. Ten houses on the reserve flooded.

The brothers drive past the band-owned Musqueam Golf Course, where water is pooling on the greenway. It’s next to the residential part of the reserve, which is elevated, but not the golf course. This makes it prone to flooding, especially in winter, Norman says.

Living in low-lying land by the river, there are plenty of clues that climate change is not a matter of “soon”, he said.

“We can see it now.”


Monday, in our sixth and final installment in this series: What will a flood look like and what will it take to protect the Lower Mainland?  [Tyee]

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