Commentary Feature

An ‘Unsettled’ Conversation About St. John River Flooding And Climate Change

Image: submitted by ACAP.

As heavy snow fell and precipitation continued in the north of the province until the end of April, the lower St. John River basin once more began to fill up. By the end of the month, for the second time in a year, flood waters reached unprecedented levels.

When a once in a lifetime event happens, it is an anomaly; an outlier. When a once in a lifetime event happens twice, there is a pattern forming and a larger game afoot, an opinion shared by Saint John mayor Don Darling and ACAP executive director Graeme Stewart-Robertson.

“[As] you said, Graeme, this is municipal, provincial, it’s statewide, and then it’s national and then it’s international when you’re looking at climate as a whole. When you’re seeing hockey stick graph after hockey stick graph and then can look a community in the face and say look, “this is a spring flood” it’s very clearly not a normal spring flood…. We need to understand that we have a place in this dialogue. We have a place in this change.”

Emergency services across the province have been scrambling and deploying forces to recover ground, protect property and mitigate further damages. Now that flood waters have started to recede, it’s time to talk about the long term solutions to a problem that could very well become a recurring event.

Stewart-Robertson, the host of the podcast Submerged, and Darling recently joined Matt George on Unsettled, a locally-produced podcast looking at how to navigate 21st-century change. In another excerpt from that conversation, Stewart-Roberston says it isn’t surprising flooding happened again, but he didn’t think it would happen so soon.

We’re seeing severe [flooding] and I think unsurprising water levels for many of us who work within watershed and watershed management, but surprising a little bit in that it came so soon again. I think we thought in many ways this was not a matter of if, but when, but that we might have more time to learn our lessons and to implement changes from last year. Here we are again.– Graeme Stewart-Robertson (00:38)

It’s now early May and post-flood activities are still ongoing. Graeme reminded us that the work is not done when the flood waters recede; there are great risks during cleanup.

It seems there are two key pieces to the flood debate; emergency services and response after an event like this takes place and the work to mitigate the risk of these events occurring in the future.

One is a response to a disaster; not passive in any sense but it implies the event must happen prior to the response. This is short-term, often chaotic and always traumatic at some level.

The second is future-focused. We must respond when climate events occur but what about before they occur? It is clear our climate is changing and previously rare weather events are becoming more frequent and more severe.

How do we prepare as a city, province, and nation in advance of impending climate disaster? What public policy do we write so we are able to make sense to each other on how the climate is changing and what that means for us as a community? What do our industry and political leaders need to do to show leadership in sustainability and resilience?

What New Brunswick’s most recent flood has done is fuel a larger, community-wide discussion. It is our most recent evidence of a changing climate and an unsettled environment, says Darling.

“I think the response has been good, but I think there’s a lot of lessons, and there are always… And there isn’t anyone in our organization that would disagree, I hope, with what I’m about to say, and that is that we can always do better. Now, this conversation that we’ve been having can’t be ignored, a conversation about climate change, about the change in our community, and what the impacts of that change are going to be.”

In Saint John, we must not fool ourselves into thinking that the future comes without us. We can, and must, have a role to play in navigating these changes. We must enter into further discussion with the stakeholders and rights-holders that work within this dynamic and ever-changing watershed because what was once-in-a-lifetime is becoming the new normal.

It’s also a discussion that involves people from many communities, provinces and countries, says Stewart-Roberston.

“What’s really interesting about the St. John watershed is that it is transboundary. In many ways with foreign nations if you count Maine, the Province of Quebec which considers itself a nation in many regards and is in many regards, New Brunswick, and of course our First Nations as well. That means that there are a great many jurisdictions, a great many not just landowners but institutions, which are charged with the care of this watershed. When we get these snows up North, and as our climate change models at least in New Brunswick show, there will be increased precipitation in coming years on to 2050 and onward.”

Be a part of the conversation.

You can find this episode of Unsettled on the Apple and Spotify platforms.