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Rithet's Bog LogoBlame Ourselves, Not the Rain

Times Colonist – January 20, 2005 – Jack Knox

Right, the next person to say “at least you don’t have to shovel it” gets a furled umbrella through the ear.

Of course, all this rain wouldn’t be so hard to deal with if we hadn’t methodically dismantled every one of Mother Nature’s mechanisms for regulating runoff.

We’ve paved paradise, preventing water from seeping evenly into the soil. Parking lots and streets funnel water-borne nutrients, sediment and pesticides into ditches and sewers that lead to rivers and oceans.

Roads wash out because we’ve stripped adjacent hills of vegetation. Bogs, which act as natural sponges, filtering pollutants and evening water flow to protect us from both flood and drought, have systematically been drained. (Pause here to give thanks to those who had the foresight to restore Saanich’s 42-hectare Rithet’s Bog, the last remaining ecosystem of its kind in Greater Victoria.)

Mess with the environment and you pay the price. Nothing new there, though the knowledge hasn’t prevented us from swamping our fields and forests in spreading puddles of humanity. Just look at the edges of Victoria, where the suburban footprint grows ever larger. From Sooke, all around the coast to Campbell River, the gaps are few and far between. Only about one-quarter of the wetlands of Greater Vancouver and Greater Victoria remain.

But hey, we all need places to live and work, right? Even David Suzuki needs a roof. They wouldn’t build all those new houses if we weren’t clamouring for them.

And government likes the taxes brought by development - which is where the environment loses out. It’s relatively easy to quantify the value of land when it’s used for housing, industry or agriculture, but virtually impossible to put a price tag on its natural benefits. Ah, but not so fast, argues Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada. In the Value of Natural Capital in Settled Area of Canada, SFU environmental economist Nancy Olewiler says it is possible to estimate the value of goods and services provided by nature.

From renewable resources such as fisheries, to recreation opportunities, to the environment’s capacity for water filtration and flood control, it’s possible to measure “natural capital.” Such an approach led New York City to decide it far cheaper to pay landowners to protect watersheds then to build a new water-filtration plant. The study values the benefits of the lower Fraser Valley’s wetlands at a minimum of $232 million annually – even as they are threatened by the inexorable sprawl of Greater Vancouver, where the population jumped from1.8 million in 1996 to almost two million just five years later.

“Protection and enhancement of natural capital will improve water quality and decrease water-treatment costs, increase recreational opportunities, mitigate flooding, decrease net greenhouse gas emissions, lower dredging cost of waterways, improve air quality, provide habitat, sustain food production and produce many more tangible benefits to society,” the report argues.

Alas, Canada doesn’t have a handle on its stock of natural capital. Nor does it have incentives for landowners to protect green instead of pocketing it; environmental protection may benefit society, but building strip malls puts the kids through college.

Ducks Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy are urging Canadians to “invest in the science to measure, value and monitor ecological goods and services, and develop economic instruments that recognize and protect natural capital rather than continue to reward its destruction.”

If not, we face the incremental loss of the qualities we cherish. That’s ironic, particularly around Victoria, where much of the growth has been fuelled by those of us who were drawn to Vancouver Island by its natural attributes. After all, none of us moved here for the rain.

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