Results from the First National Cohort: Decision-Maker Summary

By Sara Jane O’Neill

Local governments across Canada are focusing on sustainable service delivery – delivering core municipal services in a socially, economically and environmentally responsible manner. Natural assets, such as wetlands, forests, and creeks, provide many of the same services to communities as engineered assets but are generally not accounted for and/or are undervalued in asset management practices. Any municipal asset management plan that does not include natural assets omits potentially significant dimensions of a community’s financial risk.

The Municipal Natural Assets Initiative (MNAI), convened in 2016, has developed a methodology and guidance documents to help local governments identify, value and manage natural assets within traditional financial and asset management planning frameworks. To test and refine the municipal natural asset management approach and methodology, five pilot communities were selected following a national request for proposals and interview process: The City of Nanaimo, BC, Town of Grand Forks, BC, District of West Vancouver, BC, Town of Oakville, ON, and the Region of Peel, ON.

While the results from each project are unique, they all assessed the value of stormwater services provided by a natural asset under various scenarios. Consequently, some common key messages have emerged:

Natural assets can provide equivalent stormwater management services

Overall, results show that natural assets can provide the same level of stormwater management services as their engineered counterparts. All communities found that their natural asset of interest was meeting at least the 100-year flood storage requirements under current standards. The Region of Peel also assessed water quality management services of their natural assets of interest and found that four of five ecosystem types exceeded provincial requirements for total suspended solid removal.

Under both climate change and intensified development scenarios, the value of natural assets increased

The City of Nanaimo, the Town of Grand Forks and the Region of Peel all assessed the value of their natural assets under climate change scenarios. All found that the value of their natural assets increased under climate change scenarios because they are more resilient and adaptable than other infrastructure solutions. The Town of Oakville assessed their natural asset under an intensified development scenario with the same result – the value of the natural asset increased because it can adapt to changing levels of development pressures.

All pilot communities found that the pilot results provide grounds for investigating the value of other natural assets

The work done by the communities in these pilot projects demonstrates the value and importance of natural assets for sustainable municipal service delivery, but there is more work to be done. Based on the initial findings, each community has expressed a stronger commitment to continue assessing the value and services provided by other natural assets.

To further refine the municipal natural asset management methodology, a second round of projects is already underway with the City of Courtenay, BC, the District of Sparwood, BC, the Town of Oshawa, ON, the Southeast Regional Service Commission, NB, and the Western Valley Regional Service Commission, NB. Two further initiatives, which include expanded materials on core infrastructure asset management and group training for lower capacity small/rural municipalities within one region or watershed are underway, one in British Columbia and one in the Greater Toronto area’s Greenbelt region. Finally, to continue to expand the municipal natural asset management methodology, the MNAI team is developing a methodology for assessing coastal specific services.

Want to learn more about municipal natural assets? The full results from each pilot project can be found here and the shareable Decision-Maker Summary can be found here.

Natural asset management is proving its value in the field

By: Michelle Molnar, Technical Director

While Canada focuses on efforts to reduce climate change, there’s growing recognition that we can’t meet our climate change goals without finding ways to adapt. A natural assets management approach has the advantage of addressing both mitigation and adaptation, taking us to the next level of policy solutions.

Natural assets tend to be more flexible, cost-effective and easier to adaptively manage than built infrastructure under intensifying climate conditions. They offer a wide variety of benefits, including health benefits to society and ecosystems.

Five Canadian communities are ahead of the curve in testing a natural asset management approach. The Municipal Natural Assets Initiative has come up with a way to identify, value and manage natural assets within financial and asset management planning and worked with these communities to test, refine and scale up the process. Gibsons, B.C., was the first community to incorporate natural assets into core municipal decision-making and laid the groundwork for these projects. The approach fills gaps for local governments that have left natural assets off the books.

British Columbia pilots included Nanaimo, Grand Forks and the District of West Vancouver. Ontario brought in the Region of Peel and the Town of Oakville. Models looked at stormwater management, and each community selected a natural asset with guidance from the MNAI team. All pilots found:

  • Natural assets provided stormwater management services equivalent to engineered alternatives.
  • The value of natural assets increased considerably due to their resiliency and adaptability under climate change and intensified development scenarios.
  • The full value of the natural assets is likely much higher since economic valuations did not include lifetime operations and maintenance costs or the value of services beyond stormwater management.

The Nanaimo project focused on a reclaimed wetland and floodplain known as Buttertubs Marsh Conservation Area. The marsh was found to provide stormwater storage and flood-regulation benefits comparable to engineered infrastructure. The marsh’s storage benefit, valued at more than $4.5 million, increased to between about $6.5 and $8.2 million under climate change scenarios.

The City of Grand Forks, which made headlines recently for devastating floods, considered flood-mitigation and related benefits provided by the Kettle River floodplain. The floodplain was found to provide between $500 and $3,500 per hectare in reducing flood damage to the city’s downtown buildings during high river flow events. Findings will help guide a study to recognize the floodplain’s larger watershed role and will be incorporated into the updated Official Community Plan.

The District of West Vancouver focused on a covered creek proposed for daylighting (uncovering a buried stream). The district found the capital costs of restoring the creek are similar to the cost of upgrading the culvert to meet stormwater requirements. They are now able to identify candidate streams for daylighting.

The Region of Peel considered Fletcher’s Creek and East Credit River subwatersheds. Palustrine, isolated and riverine watersheds, as well as forests and green spaces, were the focus. A 100-year storm event and future climate change scenario were tested. The value of the stormwater services provided by natural assets in the subwatersheds was estimated at $704 million under current climate and $764 under future climate change conditions, indicating that natural assets have an essential role in the face of worsening climate change.

The Town of Oakville, which is losing green space to development, considered the Maplehurst remnant channel in relation to natural asset conversions. The town found it would require between $1.2 and $1.4 million to replace a 240-plus-metre channel with engineered infrastructure. Investigating remnant channels and including natural assets in policy has become a town focus.

Although each of the projects had unique constraints and it’s unclear how initial findings will translate into management changes, they demonstrate that the value of natural services can be equivalent to that of engineered alternatives, an important finding in the face of climate change and strained municipal budgets. Five new pilots will further guide municipalities seeking resiliency and adaptation solutions to climate change.

Current opportunity for a municipal natural assets project in a BC watershed

In municipalities across Canada, infrastructure is aging, capital and operating costs are rising, and service delivery is strained by growing populations and shifting conditions.  Solutions may be around us: there is growing evidence that natural assets provide, or could be restored to provide, services just like engineered assets, and often at lower costs.

However, most local governments lack policies and methods to measure the services provided by natural assets or the risks to services if the natural assets become degraded.

The Municipal Natural Assets Initiative (MNAI) offers a methodology and support for local governments to integrate natural assets into core asset management and financial processes using the same systems as for engineered assets.

MNAI is now offering a watershed-level program in B.C. focussed on the needs and capacities of smaller / rural local governments in a single geographic region.

Additional details and the Request for Expressions of Interest (due date: August 17), to be submitted by a group of local governments, is available at this link.

More information and Request for Expressions of Interest

Click here to learn more about the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative.

 Applications from groups of local governments in a single region or watershed are due by August 17th. Please contact [email protected] for additional information and questions.