A new report underscores the Fraser River's importance to the Lower Mainland economy and calls for an urgent program of dredging and other flood prevention measures, as well as upgrades to critical infrastructure.
Commissioned by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with other chambers in the region, the study warns the region escaped a very close call in 2007.
"The river came perilously close to overtopping the dikes in the Fraser Valley during the spring freshet," says the report, which is to be released at a conference today in New Westminster organized by the Fraser Basin Council.
It cites estimates that another flood rivaling the record flood of 1894 would cause tens of billions of dollars in damage and catastrophic losses for the 300,000 residents of the floodplain, as well as business and industry.
Unlike the sparsely populated farmland of 120 years ago, there is now $50 billion worth of development on the Fraser's floodplain.
"Failure to deal expeditiously with this problem will leave a large part of the Lower Mainland at risk of enormous damage."
The study comes a few days after new provincial government studies projected major floods will be more frequent and severe as a result of climate change, and warned most dikes in the Fraser Valley are not high enough.
The new research on the influence of climate change and the severe flooding in Calgary and Toronto last year "highlighted the need to act urgently to enhance flood protection along the Lower Fraser," according to the report released by the business groups.
It notes estimates of $9.5 billion in spending needed in Metro Vancouver to adapt to an expected rise in sea level.
"With rising sea levels, there is a growing threat of winter storm surges that already could overtop the very extensive diking system along the tidal part of the river and adjacent coastal reaches."
Facing the challenges posed by the river is made more difficult by the fragmented governance of the region, the report said, noting there are 15 municipal governments, 29 first nations and more than 20 provincial or federal ministries involved in administration of the river.
"It is very important that a renewed, collaborative, multi-level government effort be undertaken to renew protection from floods."
The report echoes concerns raised by Port Metro Vancouver over the loss of industrial land along the river to residential redevelopment projects approved by local cities.
It also calls for ongoing active maintenance dredging of the lower river channels to New Westminster for shipping.
And it describes the replacement of the Massey Tunnel with a bridge as "an urgent priority" in light of its vulnerability to an earthquake and the potential for larger or more heavily laden ships to sail upriver once it's removed.
It also urges replacement of the aging New Westminster rail bridge, which causes significant delays for freight trains and is vulnerable to be being knocked out of service by a ship collision. A two-track train tunnel under the river has been suggested but there are no concrete plans.