Fraser Basin Council


3.2 Preparing for Climate Change – The Adaptation Process and Water and Watershed Planning


Because of the many, significant, current and projected impacts of climate change on water resources and watersheds, the value of planning and adaptation should be self-evident. The better we are able to understand the changes that are coming and how they are affecting communities and ecosystems, the better we will be able to plan for, manage and adapt to these changes.

Many methodologies have been developed to help communities learn more about the regional impacts of climate change, prioritize associated risks and opportunities, and develop climate risk management plans. Some of these methodologies are listed in in Section 9 Tools and Resources.   More resources are available on the community adaptation first-stop website “ReTooling for Climate Change at

This guide suggests that many water and watershed planning processes should consider climate change and its impacts, focusing on how climate has changed and is likely to change within the planning region, and the impacts of a changing climate on water and watersheds within the planning region.

Users of this guide are referred to existing generic methodologies identified in Tools and Resources and on the ReTooling website for details on the steps involved in identifying regional impacts, vulnerabilities, and risks, and relevant risk management strategies.  The sections that follow provide additional information that specifically addresses adaptation in the context of water and watershed planning.

3.2.1 Learning about Regional Climate Change Impacts

What are the impacts of climate change on water and watersheds in my region?

Information about climate change and its impacts on water and watersheds in BC is available, although the amount and level of detail varies from one region to another.

Information about changes in climate, changes in hydrology, and changes in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in BC during the past century is available from reports published by the BC Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Canada, and the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium.  See Tools and Resources for links to key publications.

The planning tool Plan2Adapt provides a good starting point for learning about future climate.  It provides regionally relevant information about projected climate for 2020s, 2050s, and 2080s, based on a standard set of climate model projections.  It presents this information in the form of simple-to-understand maps, graphs and text.  Users can view the information online as well as download material for use in presentations and reports.  Users with more technical knowledge can also download the data used to create the maps for further analysis. See

FBC_Pic3SMALL.jpgIt’s not enough to know what future climate will look like.  Equally important is to understand the implications of future climate to future stream flows, water availability, and watershed health in the planning region.  Much of the existing information on these topics is provincial in scope.  There are only a few regions – including the Okanagan, the Columbia Basin, and the Lower Mainland – for which detailed information on water and watersheds exists.  Not all of the existing information is written in simple language.   Section 9 Tools and Resources provides links to key sources of information about impacts on water and watersheds.

Where detailed local or regional information about future climate or hydrology is not readily available, communities have been able to obtain it by engaging consultants or the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, or by working with academic researchers and students. 

While many communities believe they need accurate information about future climate and future impacts on water and watersheds, in many cases general information about the direction of these impacts will be adequate for initial planning purposes.  The following information, for example, can guide water and watershed management decisions:

  • whether or not regional snowpack (a low-cost water storage mechanism) will likely decrease in future;
  • whether or not summer flows will likely be lower in future, with impacts for water temperature and health of fish stocks; or
  • whether or not heavy rainfall events – associated with flooding and stream turbidity – are becoming more frequent.

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3.2.2 Exploring Local and Regional Vulnerability to Climate Change

How will the impacts of climate change affect water supply, demand, quality and watershed health in my region?

Science alone cannot provide all the information water and watershed planners need to prepare for climate change.  In many cases it is local people who are in the best position to identify the water and watershed values they care about, how sensitive those values are to year-to-year changes in climate, and local capacity to address existing problems.

Some of the adaptation planning methodologies identified in Tools and Resources  (section 9 of this guide) describe two types of assessment: vulnerability assessment and risk assessment. Vulnerability assessment looks specifically at the ability of the community to address emerging pressures related to climate.  Questions for water and watershed planners to consider in assessing vulnerability related to climate change are:

  • What aspects of climate are currently important to our water supply or our watershed? In particular, how have extreme weather events affected our water supply or watershed in the past?
  • Given projected climate change and related impacts: Is the community water supply likely to increase or decrease? Is damage to water infrastructure likely to increase or decrease?
  • How prepared is our community to projected changes? Are we resilient or vulnerable?

In many cases, climate change will exacerbate existing management challenges, such as water shortages, water use conflicts, protecting water quality and managing natural hazards – things that communities are already struggling to address.

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3.2.3 Evaluating Local and Regional Risk Related to Climate Change

What climate-related risks are priorities for my community in terms of the hazards and consequences?

Many communities are familiar with risk assessment and risk management. Preparing for climate change can be approached as just another aspect of risk management. Risk is the product of the likelihood of a hazard (e.g., flood, fire, drought, water contamination, landslide) occurring, and the consequences of exposure to that hazard.  Communities can manage risk by reducing exposure to a hazard or by minimizing its consequences.

Sometimes climate change will introduce a new hazard (for example sea level rise, glacier loss), or a new consequence (for example new, invasive species). More often, climate change will increase or decrease the likelihood that a hazard will occur.

Water and watershed planners can use their knowledge of regional climate changes and its impacts to inform a basic risk assessment. Planners should also consider whether climate change presents new hazards or consequences relevant to water and watershed planning.

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3.2.4 Identifying Climate Risk Management Strategies

What are the most important short, medium and long-term strategies that my community can implement to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change?

Once communities have a deeper understanding of past and future climate change, potential impacts, local vulnerabilities, and priority risks, they will be in a good position to identify, evaluate and select strategies that will minimize local or regional climate-related risks. Most of these strategies will look familiar.

Where climate change will likely reduce supply, communities can:

  • Develop water conservation and/or drought management plans.
  • Reduce demand through conservation meausres or more efficient water use.
  • Expand the storage capacity of existing water supplies.
  • Develop new water supplies or retention structures.

Where climate change will have negative effects on Water Quality, communities can:

  • Change design capacity of drainage infrastructure such as storm sewers, catch basins, and erosion protection structures.
  • Manage rainwater on-site to ease demands on drainage infrastructure.

Where climate change will negatively affect Other Water and Watershed Values communities can:

  • Protect wetlands and other sensitive habitats.
  • Restore riparian and instream habitat.

Currently, there is no list of “best practices” for adaptation.  This is because climate change and its impacts vary from one location to another, and communities vary in their exposure and ability to cope. In addition, vision, values, risk tolerance, priorities, resources, and other factors vary from one community to another, so even those facing similar risks and opportunities may make different adaptation choices.  Thus, while many adaptation options are theoretically possible, communities should evaluate to the extent possible the likely local costs and benefits of specific strategies before selecting those they wish to implement.

Where climate change exacerbates existing management challenges, such as water shortages, water use conflicts, protecting water quality and managing natural hazards, consideration must be given to the degree to which climate change is compounding those problems and to how strategies and responses need to be refined to address additional pressures related to climate change.  “No regrets” actions that address both current and future risk are particularly popular.

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About Rethinking our Water Ways

This website is a guide to help BC communities learn more about planning for local watersheds and water resources, navigate current planning processes, consider relevant issues and challenges — including regional climate change impacts —  and build capacity to develop and implement plans.


The Rethinking our Water Ways guide and website are possible thanks to funding support from the BC Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Canada's Regional Adaptation Collaborative Program. The guide and website were launched and distributed through a series of regional workshops throughout BC, with funding contributions from the Fraser Salmon and Watersheds Program, Environment Canada and the Real Estate Foundation of BC. Learn more about our funders and advisors.

We want to hear from you

Share your suggestions for this website, and ideas for future water workshops, with:

Steve Litke
Senior Program Manager
T: 604 488-5358

About the Fraser Basin Council

Rethinking our Water Ways is an initiative of the Fraser Basin Council (FBC), a charitable non-profit society that advances sustainability in the Fraser River Basin, across BC, and beyond. Established in 1997, FBC brings people together from multiple sectors to learn about sustainability and find collaborative solutions to current issues. Learn more about FBC by visiting