This past December, New Brunswickers experienced some of the most dramatic weather conditions in memorable history. A 24 hour torrential downpour throughout central and southwestern parts of the province saw water levels rise in record speed. The St. John River watershed flooded as though it was April and residents near St. George were stranded when the magnificent power of water gouged out roads, and newly formed rivers and lakes consumed the landscape.
One week later, along the eastern coast of Shediac and Bouctouche, storm surges ripped through seawalls, mindlessly spewing rocks and debris and destroying valued tourist attractions. It was estimated by the Department of Public Safety that the month of December cost New Brunswick tax-payers $50M.
Scientists at universities, and government departments at the provincial and federal levels predict that the events that we experienced this winter are only going to increase in frequency as climate change accelerates. Putting the aesthetic and personal attachments to our coastal and waterfront landscapes aside, the provincial government cannot afford the continual cost of emergency measure operations, cleanup, and compensation.
We are now in the midst of climate change. We are no longer working toward preventing it from happening; we are in full–on survival and adaptation mode now. But how do we adapt? Do we change our habits, our fundamental values that drive our land use planning and policy development?
These are hard and complicated questions, but wetlands protection is a good start.
Wetlands represent some of our most productive ecosystems. In addition to hosting extreme biodiversity, they actually perform many ecosystem services that we humans cannot do without. Wetlands absorb water in times of abundance, slowly releasing it, recharging the groundwater system that most New Brunswickers depend on for their drinking water supply. Wetlands, particularly riparian zones, trap sediment and filter water running through the watershed, offer shade and habitats for valued aquatic species, and offer a visual aesthetic. Of most significance to the climate change discussion, the ability of wetlands to retain water and control flooding is a service that would cost us an incomprehensable amount of money to replace in man-made infrastructure. Preserving them, and their full natural functionality, will be essential in buffering us from an increase in water when we don’t want it and a lack of water when we need it most – which are exactly the predictions for our region under most climate change modelling scenarios.
Despite what our government knows about the value of wetlands and their ecosystem functions, they are continually at risk. Because humans want and need to be near the water, our wetlands are some of the most highly sought, developed and priced properties.
Municipalities and developers are putting extreme pressure on our provincial government to relax the Wetland Conservation Policy that has been in effect since 2002. This January, the province announced the new implementation guidelines under this policy. Initial reactions to these new guidelines have been mixed. Many municipalities and developers feel that wetland protection is stifling development and economic growth across the province, while conservation organizations feel that pressure from those interests is actually weakening wetland protection.
While these vested advocates interests insist that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of the environment, the environment and economic development should not be considered separate entities. Our society and economy fall within our environment and if we do not protect the environment that protects us and provides our economy, we cannot survive.