The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District is on the west coast of the province of British Columbia, located within the traditional territory of the Skwxwù7mesh, St’át’imc, and Lil’wait Nations and overlapping with the territories of the Stó:lō, Tsleil-Waututh, Nlaka’pamux, Tsilhqot’in, and Secwepemc Nations (Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, n.d.). Squamish, the District’s largest municipality, sits on the unceded territory of the Squamish Nation, who once occupied roughly 692,100 hectares of traditional territory including the Burrard Inlet, English Bay, False Creek, and Howe Sound watersheds (Squamish Emergency Program [SEP], 2015; Squamish Nation, 2021). In the Squamish language, part of the Coast Salish language family, the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish People) have lived and governed this territory since time immemorial (Native Land, 2021), and the St’át’imc Nation, the original inhabitants of the territory now known as Lillooet, hold title, rights, and ownership of their territorial lands and resources (St’at’imc Government Services, 2021).
The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) is a regional government area that encompasses 16,311 km² of land, approximately 1.9% of BC land area (Statistics Canada, 2017). SLRD consists of four unincorporated Electoral Areas, and four Member Municipalities: the District of Lillooet, Village of Pemberton, Resort Municipality of Whistler, and the District of Squamish (SEP, 2015). As per 2016 estimates, the SLRD had a population of over 42,000 people, and Squamish is the most populous community in the region, with an estimate (in 2020) of more than 23,000 residents (Statistics Canada, 2017; Statistics Canada, 2021). Squamish is experiencing rapid population growth, and it is expected to grow to 36,000 residents by 2036, making it one of the fastest-growing communities in Canada (District of Squamish, 2018).
SLRD is a geographically diverse and ecologically complex region, comprised of a wide range of landscapes, including five biogeoclimatic zones that range from the wet Coastal Western Hemlock along Howe Sound to the drier Interior Douglas Fir zone of the Lillooet River watershed. The land within the SLRD varies from heavily forested to steep mountainous, glaciers and river valleys, with approximately 20% of the land located primarily in parks and protected areas (SLRD, 2008). Squamish is surrounded by the Coastal Mountain range and is located on a fjord at the north end of Howe Sound, where five rivers converge. The coastal mountains that surround Squamish reach elevations of over 2.5 km, and the community’s weather is heavily influenced by this mountainous topography. Its temperate coastal climate consists of wet winters and warm, dry summers, and it receives over 2300 mm precipitation annually, with over 180 days of precipitation throughout the year (SEP, 2015). The Squamish River watershed is the largest within the Strait of Georgia, and it supports an abundance of flora and fauna, such as black and grizzly bears, gray wolves, and salmon in the lower Squamish River (SEP, 2015).
There is a wide range of human activities and land use types within the SLRD, and communities range from rural agricultural communities to small, historic mining towns to tourism destinations, most notably the internationally-recognized Resort Municipality of Whistler (SLRD, 2008). Tourism and outdoor recreation is one of SLRD’s largest industries and drivers of economic development, with Squamish self-proclaimed as the outdoor recreation capital of Canada (SEP, 2015). Agriculture is another major economy in the SLRD, with over $10,300,000 in total gross farm receipts for 2016 (Ministry of Agriculture, 2016). Construction, forestry, renewable energy, and mining also contribute to economic opportunities in the SLRD (SLRD, n.d.). Squamish’s unique location and stunning topography contribute to its local aesthetics and livability, but it also contributes to exposure to the second-highest number of types of natural hazards among all the communities in BC (Newell & Picketts, 2020; District of Squamish [DOS], 2021).
Potential and existing disruptions to regional water security
In 2021, SLRD published a Community Risk Assessment (CRA) designed to inform SLRD communities about the hazards to which they have the greatest exposure, the risk event triggers, and potential local impacts. The CRA is meant to inform further risk reduction efforts, and emergency response and recovery plans (Squamish-Lillooet Regional District Emergency Program [SLEP], 2021). The CRA indexes a list of hazards that could possibly occur in SLRD, with climate change presenting the highest risks and being one that interacts with many of the other hazards included in the report. Water-related hazards (including those associated with water security) are among the highest risk of occurrence and threat of impact, and such hazards include drought, riverine flood, and geotechnical debris flow and flood hazards (SLEP, 2021).
Drinking water and Human well-being. SLRD’s CRA lists droughts as a moderate risk with climate change increasing the likelihood of drought through a lack of precipitation and longer stretches of hotter, drier weather in the summer that lead to depletion of aquifers and drinking water reservoirs. It is estimated that due to climate change, SLRD can expect a rise in mean annual temperature of approximately 1.7 °C by the year 2050, as well as a decrease in annual snowfall by approximately 15% (DOS, 2017). Estimates from 2016 indicate that 19% of the total 7,674 ha of agricultural land relies/relied on irrigation, placing further stress on freshwater resources (Ministry of Agriculture, 2016).
Droughts and disruptions to water service infrastructure also affect fire protection capacity and resilience to wildfires. Wildfires are considered moderate-to-severe risk in SLRD, as many of the regions’ communities are in or in close proximity to forest covered areas (SLEP, 2021). Loss of fire protection can also occur due to aged and outdated infrastructure. For example, Squamish contains 105 kilometres of water pipeline that is not designed for seismic resistance, as well as 25 lift stations and infrastructure that currently exists within floodplain areas (SEP, 2015). SLRD is exposed to active tectonics from the North American Plate Margin, and although the possibility of a severe earthquake is low, it would be a high consequence event with severe adverse impacts to infrastructure and human well-being. A strong earthquake would result in a loss of fire protection due to fire hydrants becoming out of service, as well as disruptions to drinking and wastewater systems, involving issues such as sewer overflow and/or waste water treatment bypass discharge. Tsunami, liquefaction, and landslides are also expected in the event of an earthquake (SEP, 2015; SLEP, 2021).
Water-related hazards and climate change. Climate change is anticipated to increase the severity of weather events in SLRD, such as heavy rain that can result in flooding. With an estimated increase in annual precipitation in the SLRD of approximately 6% by 2050 (DOS, 2017), many communities in river valley floodplains of the SLRD are at risk, and SLRD’s CRA lists riverine floods as a moderate-to-high risk (SLEP, 2021). Squamish is particularly at risk, as it contains four of the five most commonly flooded landscapes, with its low-lying coastal and inland shorelines and extensive river floodplains from five rivers with mountainous watersheds (Squamish, Mamquam, Cheakamus, Stawamus and Cheekye) (DOS, 2021; SEP, 2015). The Province of BC has a Dike Consequence Classification by Region, and both the District of Squamish’s Mamquam and Squamish River are classified as high consequence. In 2011, the District of Squamish reported over three thousand residential buildings (60% of the total building stock) to be in an area of potential inundation (DOS, 2021). Most flooding events in the SLRD occur during autumn months (October to December) when the most intense periods of rain occur and temperatures are warm enough that precipitation still falls as rain and not snow. Coastal flooding typically occurs during the winter storm season in the Squamish region when storm surges are combined with the highest tides of the year (SEP, 2015). Intense rainfall and rapid snowmelt also cause high soil saturation levels that can trigger debris flows (i.e., liquified landslides carrying debris), including soil, rock, and vegetation. Debris flows and debris floods are listed as moderate-to-severe hazard risk in SLRD (SLEP, 2021), and are known hazards in areas within Squamish, particularly in areas such as the Cheekye Fan and Stawamus River (DOS, 2021).
Economic Activities and Development. SLRD (Squamish in particular) has a number of water-related challenges that pose risk to industries and economic development. Squamish can access through few routes, and hazard events such as landslides could result in the closure of the main highway, thereby limiting emergency access and evacuation routes and the transport of goods. Tourism and liveability of Squamish are also of concern, with considerable planning efforts made by the District of Squamish into developing the waterfront with climate change and protection of the marine ecosystem a priority (DOS, 2018).
Ecosystems. The Skwelwil’em Squamish Estuary Wildlife Management Area is the only conservation land in SLRD designated as a Wildlife Management Area (WMA) by the Province of BC. This 673 ha estuary is both a highly productive and valuable ecosystem at the head of Howe Sound, and it is significant both as an area where traditional First Nations activities still take place and as a habitat for fish, migratory birds, and wildlife species. The estuary drains 3,650 km² of coastal rainforest, and restoration work is in progress to address impacts from previous human uses and industrial activities, such as (most significantly) massive amounts of fill deposited to construct dykes, railway corridors, and industrial platforms (Government of British Columbia, 2021; Ministry of Environment and Environmental Stewardship [MEES], 2007) that resulted in the loss of salmon habitat and a decline in the number of salmon in the Squamish River and its tributaries (Squamish River Watershed Society, 2016). The WMA is also a feeding, spawning and rearing ground for a variety of provincially significant fish species including the eulachon, steelhead and juvenile salmonids such as chinook and coho (MEES, 2007). This WMA is a habitat for endangered, threatened, sensitive, and vulnerable species, and the BC Provincial Conservation Data Centre has listed over three hundred species that live within the District of Squamish alone, with approximately one hundred red-listed species-at-risk (PCDC, 2021).
Current initiatives and efforts
Squamish Climate Action Network is a registered not-for-profit organization. This community action group strives to educate, support, and empower the community of Squamish by developing, promoting, and implementing sustainable strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change, including strengthening and providing an inclusive food system, reducing community energy consumption and dependency on fossil fuels, and achieving zero waste.
Squamish River Watershed Society (SRWS) is a project-based organization that focuses on key environmental factors and human influences relating to preserving and enhancing the integrity of the Squamish Watershed. The SRWS has received multi-year funding to activate the Squamish Estuary Salmon Habitat Recovery Project aiming to benefit salmon throughout Howe Sound and the Salish Sea.
Adapted from the CRA, the following are potential and existing disruptions to water security and water-related hazards in SLRD.
- Climate change (Risk level: High)
- Drought (Risk level: Moderate)
- Flood: Riverine (Risk level: Moderate-High)
- Debris Flow, Debris Flood (Risk level: Moderate/Moderate to Severe)
- Wildland Interface Fire (Risk level: Moderate to Severe)
Future priorities and plans
Environmental Sensitive Area Mapping four phases of mapping Environmental Sensitive Areas (ESA) completed by the District of Squamish. The goal of the project is to provide information that will be used to aid future land use planning in the region.
SLRD Emergency Program’s website includes resources for signing up for local emergency notices, SLRD community emergency response and recovery plans, and ‘disaster ready’ preparedness an online resource for residents of SLRD directing them to PreparedBC’s public informative guides for how to prepare and recover in the event of a disaster, with specific guides for wildfire, flood, and landslides. The SLRD holds the position that hazard mitigation is the direct responsibility of the Province and therefore is not prepared to financially participate in any costs associated with minimizing risk from natural hazards through mitigation works (SLRD, 2011).
FireSmart BC program administered by the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Wildfire Management Branch, the FireSmart program is designed to reduce interface fire risk to communities and reduce the risk of wildfire affecting residential properties.
Squamish Marine Action Strategy (MASt) informs and supports planning and development decisions in the waterfront and marine environment of the District of Squamish over the next 10 years. The strategy is a District priority and aims to catalyze shared leadership to advance environmental stewardship, economic development opportunities, outdoor recreation, and downtown revitalization.
Squamish Valley Agricultural Plan (SVAP) was produced to include ways in which Squamish can focus on mitigating climate change resulting in contributions to food security.
Squamish Food Policy Council (SFPC) is supported by the Squamish CAN organization. The SFPC’s mission is that all members of Squamish have access to enough nutritious, safe, ecologically sustainable, and culturally appropriate food at all times. Squamish Valley food and agricultural lands are protected and productive, and producers, processors, growers, foragers, and knowledge holders are valued and supported.
Spaces, Places and Possibilities was a research project conducted in Squamish that explores ways of integrating urban systems modelling with visualization techniques to better capture and convey potential outcomes of social and physical infrastructure decisions to local government and stakeholders. The visualizations depict the different community scenarios (i.e., ways the community can develop), exploring a variety of factors including access to amenities and education, walkability, parks/trails, food and farm systems, public transit, housing affordability, threats to critical habitat, etc.
Squamish River Salmon Recovery Plan details the Skwelwil’em Squamish Estuary WMA role in several regional, provincial and national environmental ongoing strategies and recovery plans.