Rising water

McKinney Farm Road by cabbages
McKinney Farm, February 2015

Every year for the past decade, our neighbourhood floods in late February and early March.

Endless days of pounding rain, snow melt from further up the Fraser River, high tides and climate change are combining to raise water levels.

Lulu Island is on a floodplain where the Fraser River meets the Pacific Ocean, so we should expect flooding, but every year it seems to slightly worse.

Last year, parts of neighbouring fields were submerged and close to home our blueberry bushes that we grow in raised rows fortified with sawdust, had an inch or two of water. In an area where a long-gone barn once stood there at least six inches of water pooled in the depression.

One Saturday night during a downpour, we had to get our sump pump working and then head to the City of Richmond works yard and shovel sand in small burlap bags to put around the property.

boulders on the dyke
Dikes around Richmond

As the water rose, I couldn’t help thinking about the southern Alberta Flood of 2013 –  the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history.

To help protect us, the City of Richmond has built dikes around the 49-kilometer perimeter of Lulu Island.

It’s also dug 178 kilometers of ditches and canals, laid 622 kilometers of drainage pipes, and built 41 pump stations and countless storm sewers.

Yet, it’s not enough. Richmond now has a population of 210,000, a increase of close to 20,000 in just three years on our small island. There are 71,200 dwellings and many multi-story apartment buildings built of marshy soil supplemented with fill.

To help keep the water draining, the City also has dug 178 kilometers of ditches and canals,  laid 622 kilometers of drainage pipes, and built 41 pump stations and countless storm sewers.

Water box
Pumping water after rain

The dykes help to hold floods, and the drainage infrastructure helps with rainfall, but if there was an earthquake – and scientists predict we’re due for one – the ground would liquify and we’d all be under water.

The City is now part of the Lower Mainland Flood Management Strategy, a collaboration of 25 local governments in the Metro Vancouver region as well as the provincial government and the federal government.

The goal is to work together to:

  1. Better understand flood hazards.
  2. Identify flood vulnerabilities.
  3. Assess current flood infrastructure, management practices and policies.

So far, the group has determined “a major flood in the Lower Mainland is a threat to public health and safety, and could result in billions of dollars in damage to private and public property, loss of infrastructure and community services, disruption of business and trade, degradation of water quality and harmful environmental impacts.”

Not even high tide
Not even high tide

Could it get any more frightening?

In response, in July 2015, the BC Premier appointed a Minister of State for Emergency Preparedness to work with communities that could be impacted by floods to determine risk-mitigation measures.

There is also a new floodplain mapping program, and federal funding for flood mapping. Richmond has a flood protection strategy to 2031 and a dike master plan.

I hope all of this will come in time. It’s raining outside tonight.

 

Map 2
Courtesy of the City of Richmond

 

What happens when you don’t meet your farm development plan?

Great trees
If you’re a BC farmer and despite your best efforts you don’t meet your farm plan, your land can’t be  be reclassified as residential, according to a recent BC Supreme Court decision.

The story begins in 1991 when Bruce and Dorothy Kelt bought 4.94 acres of Class 1 – Residential property in Nanaimo, BC.

In 1997 the Kelts applied to BC Assessment to have their land classified as a farm. With their application, the Kelts included a farm development plan estimating annual revenue of at least $2,500 from a tree farm they were planting.

BC Assessment classified the Kelt’s property as “Class 9 – Farm” for 1998.

By 2001 the Kelt’s revenue was lower than the projected $2,500 and at BC Assessment’s request, the Kelts revised their farm development plan again estimating revenue of $2,500 but this time, by 2007.

Trees not doing so wellThe Kelts didn’t meet this target because their trees did poorly. BC Assessment reclassified the Kelt’s land to residential because sales were not $2,500 as required by the Classification of Land as a Farm Regulation, B.C. Reg. 411/95.

The Kelts complained to the Property Assessment Review Panel which hears property assessment complaints. This review panel recommended BC Assessment reclassify the property as a farm. BC Assessment complied.

In 2012, sales were low and BC Assessment again reclassified the land as residential. The Kelts again complained to the Property Assessment Review Panel  which sided with BC Assessment .

The Kelts appealed this decision to the Property Assessment Appeal Board of BC, the second level of appeal for property assessments in British Columbia.

The Appeal Board found the Kelts had not adhered to the requirements of the Farm Regulation by failing to meet their projected harvest date and revenue target in their approved farm plan.

The Kelts appealed this decision to the BC Supreme Court and won.

In her decision, the Hon. Madam Justice Madame Doran found the Property Assessment Appeal Board of BC erred.

She concluded that both the Act and the Farm Regulation are clear that BC Assessment must classify land as a farm where the requirements are met, but nowhere among these requirements is an owner required to follow or in fact meet the projected harvest date of a development plan.

Justice Doran also found the Property Assessment Appeal Board of BC relied on cases submitted by BC Assessment which were based on Farm Regulation s.11 Declassification which was repealed in 2012.

While the case involves one small farm, many small farmers will see it as a game-changer setting a precedent for how BC Assessment classifies farmland.

For information: Canada: Agricultural Law NetLetter, Monday, September 7, 2015 – Issue 331

End photo

Light pollution encroaches on farmlands

Light pollution daylights farm field
Bright lights from house spill on farm field

When residential, commercial and industrial development occurs on or beside farmland and fields, we lose hedgerows, which may include blackberries and wild flowers, and wetlands including sloughs.

This takes away habitat and food sources for pollinator species such as insects, bees, birds and butterflies, as well as for frogs and bats.

Remaining wildlife also face a new problem. Once homes and commercial buildings are ready for occupancy, we’re seeing a disturbing trend in the South Slough area. New owners are over-lighting their property causing light pollution.

Picture 007Light pollution is excessive use of artificial light. It includes unnecessary bright lights which trespass onto adjoining properties and cause glare and sky glow which brightens the night sky. The cause is poorly designed lighting and it’s harmful wildlife, humans and our climate.

Why do property owners install these types of lights?

Light pollution from plant daylights farm field
Industry lights spill onto farmland

Farm areas tend to be darker at night. Owners of homes and industrial parks alongside farms typically place excessive lighting on building exteriors believing this will stop crime.

Does it? No, the opposite is true and there is significant evidence to support this. Bright lights don’t prevent crime or accidents, they just cost a lot of money from wasted energy and they disturb the neighbours.

Woodward Slough.jpegThe South Slough area has a number of sloughs which are mosquito breeding grounds. West Nile virus has been found not far from here. This year there were far fewer bats and the diminishing number can’t  all be explained by white nose syndrome.

Bats are nocturnal and need darkness and our area is becoming too bright, so bats are moving elsewhere.

The has serious consequences for us. In one summer season, a colony of 150 brown bats can eat 38,000 cucumber beetles, 16,000 June bugs, 19,000 stinkbugs and 50,000 leafhoppers, according to the BC Ministry of Environment.

Light pollution daylights slough
Light pollution daylights slough

Light pollution is also affecting our frog population in the sloughs and our bird population which both also eat mosquitoes and other insects. Excessive light alters their behavior, disrupting their migration and feeding habits.

Eagles used to nest in trees above the Woodward Slough. After a car with a speeding teenager drove into the slough, the City responded by installing bright flashing lights that operate 24 hours.

Farms attract rats and the eagles were the only reliable predators. Now they’re gone and we’re left with so many rats our vehicle wires are being chewed through.

DSC_1816
Continuous flashing lights beside quiet slough

Light pollution also affects farmers. It inhibits the production of the hormone melatonin, and interferes with circadian ryhthms and pineal gland function. This:

What is a solution?

The City should bring in a light pollution abatement bylaw which provides standards for lighting including shielded fixtures and downward aiming lights. Other local municipalities such as Delta and Saanich have implement bylaws.

South Slough area is in green at south of map. Used with the permission of City of Richmond
South Slough area is in green at south of map. Used with the permission of City of Richmond

In the long term, they save property owners and local governments money in energy costs, they lower our carbon footprint and they help bring back wildlife.

For my next blog I’m going to get outside and interview some locals. Action is the key according to Story Craft: the complete Guide to Writing Nonfiction by Jack Hart.

Urban encroachment continues on farmland

Stop work

Two weeks ago, large trucks drove along the narrow, winding country road in our neighbourhood, turned into a south slough farm field and illegally dumped loads of construction waste on prime farmland at the end of No. 4 Road.

Dumping on farmland
Tennis-court size pit where construction waste was being dumped

Local farmers complained to the provincial Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) which regulates farmland, the City of Richmond Bylaws Department and the RCMP.

All three agencies visited the farm and the ALC confirmed the worst: the 24-acre farm, which had recently sold, was being used as an illegal dump site.

The ALC placed a “stop work” order on the farm because the fill was contravening the City Soil Removal and Deposit Activities on Agricultural Land Bylaw.

Contractors charge as much as $650 a truckload to haul construction waste. A large part of this goes to dump fees at landfills – and there are fewer landfills that will take construction waste.

Local farmers estimate that tenants or new owners would have likely gotten about $200 a truckload, which adds up to tens of thousands of dollars for filling a field with construction waste and then covering it over with dirt.

Finn Rd 2This isn’t the first time this has happened in our neighbourhood and it’s just one of many examples of increasing urban encroachment on farmland.

In the last 30 years Metro Vancouver’s population has increased 70 per cent to 2,470,289 from 1,445,939 in a land-constrained area with the Pacific Ocean to the west, the North Short Mountains and the U.S. border to the south.

Residents and newcomers have headed east to more rural areas or to Richmond, just 20 minutes south on Lulu Island.

This used to be farmland
This used to be farmland

Here, we’ve seen fertile farm fields alongside Fraser River estuaries paved over for large-lot detached residential sub-divisions, massive strip malls, car dealerships, industrial parks, gravel pits, commercial nurseries, soil fill operations, parking lots, golf courses, churches and temples, and highways.

Farmland has also been developed at a blistering pace into agri-businesses such as horse boarding and training facilities, pet breeding, kennels, wineries and bed and breakfasts.

Horse boarding
Horse boarding

In theory, this farmland has been protected since 1973 when the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) was established under the Agricultural Land Commission Act.

Province-wide, farmland was classified into seven categories using the Land Capability Classification for Agriculture in British Columbia and soil in the South Slough neighbourhood is class 1 and 2, the most productive with the best climate.

Fall cropsAlthough Richmond updated its Official Community Plan in 2012, and the mayor and council place a high value on protecting the City’s farmlands which supply locally grown food, other levels of government aren’t getting the message.

The federal Port Metro Vancouver has bought up fields for future industrial use, and the federal government plans to build a fuel line alongside farm fields, while the province is building a new 10-lane bridge on fields which grow berries, grapes and corn.

Investors and speculators continue see the ALR as a land bank for residential and industrial development and exert pressure on politicians and their staff. If they manage to get land out of the ALR, they make a windfall.

Mansion on Finn Road farmlandIf they don’t, they build mansions on large parcels and then don’t farm the rest, paying taxes as though it was resident land.

If they buy smaller parcels, they claim it can’t be successfully farmed, even when there is ample proof from farmers such as Curtis Stone who teaches how to make $100,000 a year farming as little as half an acre.

Organizations which have land removed from the ALR for institutional uses such as churches and temples are supposed to farm part of it, but often don’t.

There’s a sense of urgency for anyone shopping in local grocery stores and seeing the price of food spiking due to the drought in California and the low Canadian dollar.

BlueberriesHere we produce only 45 per cent of our food, although we have the highest capacity farmland and it contributes billions of dollars in revenue to Richmond’s economy, with each farm earning an average of $228,000 each year.

There is reason for some optimism. In partnership with Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Richmond now has a farm school, and graduates are knocking on doors looking for land to farm. Instructors are also farming – showing it’s possible to succeed on smaller parcels of land.German Potatoes sign

In the meantime, residents of farm neighbourhoods and organizations such as the Garden City Conservation Society have their eyes open and their phones handy to report non-farm uses. Urbanization pressures will only intensify due to ongoing population growth.

Buses parked on ALR land
Buses parked on ALR land

Summer harvest

It’s been hot this summer and all of the crops in our neighbourhood have been early, some by as much as a month.

The last of the raspberries and tayberries are still available.

Blog 2 photo

Green Gauge plums – a heritage variety grown by this area’s early Finnish settlers – didn’t do well. They ripened too early in the hot weather and then the aphids came. Farmers responded with ladybugs, but half the fruit still fell just before it was ready.

Green Guage plums

Alongside a field, I found roses, which wouldn’t have received water since the last rain, hanging on.

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The Woodward Slough, once used by farmers as irrigation (they now connect to fire hydrants), was very low and muddy.

DSC_0729

 

On a rare rainy day, the locals set up a farm stand in front of the small shopping plaza at the foot of No. 2 Road.

Rare rainy day

 

Wildlife in the South Slough area

  • A Snowy Owl
    Snowy Owl. Photo: OWL Rescue

     

     

    In the South Slough area, a decade  ago, we would often see bald eagles, hawks, and Barn, Barred and Snowy owls.

We would sit silently, still alongside the Woodward Slough, an estuary habitat beside where the Fraser River joins the Salish Sea, which flows into the Pacific Ocean. Here we would watch Great Blue herons, muskrats and river otters.

Once we saw a Sandhill Crane, another time, a beaver swimming along.

Bird on scarecrow in field
Red bird on scarecrow in blueberry field

At night, we would hear the cacophony of American Bull Frogs and Green Frogs in the Woodward and Finn Sloughs, and we’d catch glimpses of bats swooping up and down the fields and bogs.

But residential developments a mile to the north and Industrial development half a mile to the east have made our wildlife sightings less frequent.

Light pollution is part of the problem. Eagles used to nest alongside the Finn Slough until the City installed bright flashing lights where a speeding car crashed at a turn on the winding country road. The eagles didn’t return the following year.

Bats, frogs, birds and insects also need darkness. Poorly designed artificial light spilling from streetlights and industrial buildings and parking lots can disrupt commuting patterns and flight routes so that wildlife becomes confused and may be unable to feed themselves and even to reproduce.

Sightseers and visitors to the area also throw litter out of their vehicles, covering sloughs and agricultural land with fast food wrappers, plastic drink containers and aluminium cans. Sometimes they dump old televisions, computers, furniture and mattresses.

icking up little on sloughs and farmland
Neighbours picking up litter on sloughs and farmland

“All the packaging contains toxins which can cause serious problems for wildlife,” said hobby farmer Helmut Pastrick. “Animals and birds may eat pieces of plastic thinking it is food so we have to remove the garbage from fields and adjacent sloughs.”

Hunters also come onto farmland during the autumn hunting season. Although they’re required to have the permission of property owners to hunt on agricultural land, hunters trespass to shoot wild fowl. The constant sound of gunfire fire disturbs bees, so important for our crop pollination, and bats, needed for insect control because the sloughs are mosquito breeding areas.

DSC_1776
Bee boxes wrapped for winter

The neighbourhood carefully nurtures bees and bats, building hives and bat boxes. We leave out food for birds, and one neighbor managed to bring back some pheasants. Hunters disturb this fragile eco-system and shoot the birds.

Walkers, cyclists, nature seekers and photographers however well-meaning also effect wildlife in ways we all never imagined.

On a sunny day, the constant disruption by hundreds of visitors on foot and on bicycles affects even the toughest and most urbanized raccoons and coyotes who need quiet to care for their young.

Visitors pick wild blueberries in the bogs, taking food away from wildlife. At the same time, they feed wildlife granola bars and sandwiches making raccoons, coyotes and skunks reliant on handouts. Coyote

In response, the City of Richmond has spent a great deal of effort in developing an Environmentally Sensitive Area Management Strategy.

It aims to protect ecosystems on public and private lands and the areas it covers include farmland and farmed edges, fields with a history of cultivation, and sloughs, marshes and bogs. Almost 52% of Richmond’s environmentally sensitive lands are on farmland in the Agricultural Land Reserve.

But again, there are jurisdictional issues.

The Federal government protects fish habitat under the Fisheries Act and protects migratory birds and species at risk under the Species at Risk Act.

The Provincial government protects farmland under the Agricultural Land Commission Act and Regulation and protects streams through the Riparian Areas Regulation.

Sometimes it’s impossible to know who to phone when someone is throwing garbage into a slough.

The result is a great decline in biodiversity, according to Michael Wolfe, a local biology teacher.

“The two main drivers of habitat degradation are urbanization and invasive species,” said Wolfe.