Town of Okotoks: Climate Resilience Express Action Plan

In 2017, the Town of Okotoks prepared an Action Plan to help manage potentially significant risks and opportunities anticipated to result from climate change over the next several decades, including water supply shortage, drought, and river flooding. Okotoks, Alberta is a small municipality at the forefront of climate change. Okotoks decided to increase climate resilience by developing an Action Plan which identified measures to manage three priority risks and opportunities anticipated to result from climate change in the area to the 2050’s: water supply shortage, drought, and river flooding. Starter action plans were developed for each of these three priorities, including a list of actions, associated cost; timeframe and lead department. It was recommended that Town staff establish priorities from the listed actions and begin implementation as soon as practical. Okotoks, through the preparation of this Action Plan, is taking steps towards a safe, prosperous and resilient future. The Action Plan identifies several anticipatory measures to manage priority risks and opportunities anticipated to result from climate change in the area over the next several decades.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The effects of climate change are already apparent in Okotoks, with observable changes in temperature, precipitation, and Extreme Weather Events over the last century. The average annual temperature in the Okotoks area has increased by about +1.4°C since the early 1900s, with winter months seeing greater warming than summer months. Over the same period, the amount and timing of precipitation in the area have also changed. To establish the context for climate resilience action planning in Okotoks, an assessment of risks and opportunities was undertaken at a one-day workshop with local stakeholders.

Prior to the workshop, the Town of Okotoks compiled climate projections for the 2050’s for the Okotoks area using business-as-usual (RCP 8.5) and strong mitigation (RCP 4.5) scenarios. Historic climate trends in Okotoks were collected and analyzed from four climate stations in the region (Olds, Calgary, Gleichen, and Lethbridge). This information was presented and reviewed by stakeholders at the workshop to determine how projected climate changes could impact Okotoks. Workshop participants identified a range of climate-related impacts for the local economy, property and infrastructure, the natural environment, and residents’ health and lifestyles. The comprehensive list was modified to produce a smaller list of the most important priority risks:

  • Water supply shortage
  • Drought
  • River flooding.

A list of potential climate change opportunities for Okotoks was also created, for example longer growing seasons would provide economic benefits for local food producers, and increased opportunities for winter tourism and recreation resulting from fewer periods of extreme cold.

Identifying Actions

The Town of Okotoks used Climate Resilience Express – a high-level (“express”) screening process to identify and prioritize climate change risks and opportunities and develop a starter action plan. The overall approach to developing climate resilience action plans through Climate Resilience Express is grounded in existing standards for risk management based on the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) 31000, Risk Management – Principles and Guidelines.

Climate Resilience Express follows a four-step, iterative process, which involves a one-day workshop with local stakeholders. Outcomes from the workshop are used as the basis for this Action Plan. During the workshop, stakeholders translated previously identified impacts into risks and opportunities and to devise a list of recommended adaptation actions. Due to time constraints of the one-day workshop, action planning could only focus on a subset of three priority risks and opportunities, chosen by workshop participants instead of on all priority risks and opportunities (water supply shortage, drought, and river flooding). For each of these three priorities, a starter action plan was created to develop a list of potential adaptation actions. The list was screened to identify three to five of the most promising actions for inclusion in the starter action plan for each priority risk or opportunity. To inform decision-making and support implementation of the recommended actions, workshop participants also provided information on implementation costs; timeframe for implementation and the lead department or organization. Actions range from, enhancing water conservation education, to improving wetland protection for river flooding, and restricting potable water use.

Implementation

To inform decision-making and support implementation of the recommended adaptation actions, workshop participants provided information on:

  1. Total implementation costs;
  2. The timeframe for implementation (i.e., how long before the action is operational); and
  3. The lead department or organization.

These three factors were key inputs to the development of an implementation strategy. A list of definitions for total implementation costs and implementation timeframe was used to help participants provide approximations. A list of recommended actions and associated cost, timeframe and lead, were developed for each of the priority risks (water supply shortage, river flooding, and drought). The recommended adaptation actions serve as a ‘shopping-list’. Town staff were advised to establish priorities from the listed actions and begin implementation as soon as practical. Several actions can be implemented quickly with minimal investment, whereas other actions have longer-term timeframes, require a higher level of investment, and may require a more detailed implementation strategy with specific budgets and funding sources, timelines and milestones for specific activities, and defined roles and responsibilities for specific stakeholders and groups. The priority risks and opportunities identified in this Action Plan, along with the recommended actions to address them, is viewed as the first step in Okotoks’s journey towards a climate resilient future.

Effective communication with the public and other community stakeholders about climate change impacts is considered valuable in helping them understand why certain measures are needed. Community outreach, for example through the Town website or at public events can be an effective way to both: Gather input from community members on the content of the Action Plan; and promote the Town’s efforts to make the community more resilient. This Action Plan is developed as a ‘stand-alone’ document. However, it is important that climate resilience is integrated (i.e., ‘mainstreamed’)—as a matter of routine—into the Town’s strategies, plans, policies, programs, projects, and administrative processes.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

Due to time constraints at the workshop, climate resilience actions are necessarily defined at a coarse level. As consideration is given to initiating any of the identified actions, it is expected that they will be further developed to support decision-making and enable implementation. Since development of the Action Plan, the xeriscape program was implemented and was very popular in 2020, with 16 residents taking advantage of re-landscaping their yards with drought tolerant plants and mulch. This is a participation increase of 50% over 2019 which saw participation from 10 residents. In addition, 315 households took advantage of the water rebate program for smaller projects, rain barrels and irrigation controls in 2020. These programs are funded through a tiered water billing system, that charges high water use customers more per additional cubic meter.

Environmental Education efforts have also been expanded into more classrooms, more home visits, and enforcement of the outdoor watering schedule, which limits garden and lawn watering to twice per week in the early morning or evening. These actions helped extend the available water in Okotoks by 2 years, giving more time to work out an alternate water pipeline plan, which is underway but not yet finalized.

The Natural Asset Inventory was completed in 2020, which identifies all wetlands as well as other natural assets and ecosystem service providers. The next step is to take top valued assets and apply policy tools to conserve them.

Next Steps

Building resilience to climate change is not a static process, however, but rather needs to be monitored and reviewed to both check progress on implementation and to take account of changing scientific knowledge about the physical impacts of climate change. Implementing this Action Plan, reviewing progress, and updating the Plan to keep it relevant are discussed in Section 6. This Action Plan recommends undertaking a review and to be updated every 5 years to ensure it remains relevant and effective, taking account of:

  • Lessons learned from the implementation of actions;
  • New scientific information about climate projections and corresponding impacts; and
  • Changes to the Town’s goals and policies.

Keeping the Action Plan relevant may only involve a few minor adjustments, or it may require revisiting some of the steps in the climate resilience planning process and preparing a new Action Plan. The Climate Action Plan, that integrates mitigation and adaptation activities and seeks synergies to ensure that adaptation methods do not conflict with mitigation efforts, is in draft currently, to be taken to council in March 2021.