Rising to the Occasion

Life is full of lessons: some change a behaviour, others change a habit, some might last for a day, while others endure for generations. Whatever their form and frequency these lessons are usually brought about by an incident of significance, like a moment of loss or a sense of success. Often just a single episode is enough to incite the lesson, as in the pain from touching a hot pan that teaches us approach with caution or by planning to prevent the pain with pause and preparation.

But what happens when the pain strikes again? What if we go through that initial shock, then the healing process begins, but before the recovery offers its respite, we fall victim to our own human hubris? Is the lesson still in front of us, or are we stepping deeper into the deluge?

The flood of 2018 taught New Brunswick a great many things. We learned how strong our communities can be, how the pride we share as tourists in Toronto taprooms of an idiom-inciting neighbourly niceness in the Picture Province is as real as we had always imagined. From volunteer firefighters and impromptu folk-heroes in rural hamlets, to the coordinated response of large cities and corporations, we reacted and responded with resounding resolve. Thousands asked for help, and thousands responded, we pulled up our boots, and we survived a historic flood with the resolve we all felt we knew existed here, and rebuilt better than before.

Or have we? Here we are in 2019, with the waters rising in our beautiful and bountiful river once again - some setting new historic highs - and yet our provincial policies and penchant for procrastination are relics of an era which looked at our waters as out of context, rather than defining the context. In a watershed as stunning and sizable as the Wəlastəkw/St. John River, the complexity of the problem is matched only by the conceit of our complacency in the face of recurring risk.

Despite all this, lessons can be learned.

Our opportunities to defy these issues are ahead of us, and they are numerous. New Brunswick has the resources, both natural and human, to accomplish something beautiful but we have to commit and coalesce around these challenges.

The examples are all around us. Following Hurricane Hazel, the damage in southern Ontario led to sweeping changes to watershed management in the region. Though problematic in its methodology, the consolidation and conservation of vast tracks of land to create parks, floodplains and preserve habitat has strengthened communities and added value to a rapidly growing population. Following decades of disastrous Red River floods in Manitoba, the creation of floodways and protected lands have prevented over $100 billion in cumulative flood damage. Many jurisdictions have invested in natural solutions to stormwater management, such as Philadelphia where billions of dollars are being saved through the integration of green infrastructure on public property, context-conscious redevelopment of private properties, and a program of incentivized stormwater retrofits.

This is our watershed moment. Gambling on when the next historic flood will come is not saving our money, it is losing the house. As a province, we need to prove to ourselves that our lesson has been learned, by not only implementing the provincial Water Strategy for New Brunswick 2018 - 2028, but to go even further and prioritize conservation, strengthen our watercourse and wetland policies, empower communities to incentivize green infrastructure and permeable surfacing, and reverse decades of mis-placed demand for encroachment on floodplains. The continued support for the development and adoption of watershed management planning, the implementation of Environmental Flows legislation, and the empowerment of grassroots, community-based watershed organizations could show our provincial commitment to fundamentally re-defining our relationship with water throughout the year, not just when disaster strikes. Meanwhile, potential reforms to our Local Services Districts, and the Municipalities Act, offer opportunities to allow planning to take place at the ecological and watershed-level, thereby supporting the landowners, stakeholders and rights-holders along all rivers in New Brunswick and ensuring the viability of both rural and urban communities for generations to come.

These opportunities are even more significant here in New Brunswick when we consider that a recent WWF-Canada report bestows on us the second poorest ecological representation score in Canada, with only one per cent of our physical habitats being adequately protected. With the Wəlastəkw/St. John River watershed consisting of an intricate array of lakes, bays, tributaries and wetlands, it provides essential habitat to at-risk species such as wood turtles and shortnose sturgeon, amongst others. The watershed also contains significant soil and forest biomass carbon stores, and climate refuges, essential to a province developing a future as a home for population growth and resilience. With growing risks from Climate Change, invasive species, cyanobacteria blooms and numerous other challenges, the designation of provincial watershed conservation authorities or planning boards, investments in science and conservation, augmented by both legislative and community-based support is our shared opportunity to bring the active approach to flood protection New Brunswickers need and deserve.

As we continue on with watchful eyes and clutched hands, and our river swells to historic flood levels for the second time in twelve months, the time to act as a province - and as a united watershed - is upon us. While it is possible that these lessons may be learned in due time, working together and acting now can save us from that poignant pain of being burned again and again.