Rising Sea Levels and Coastal Flood Adaptation

In 2016, the City of Surrey launched the Coastal Flood Adaptation Strategy (CFAS) – a participatory, community-driven planning effort that aimed to increase the resiliency of Surrey’s coastal communities to climate change and flooding from Sea Level rise. Surrey’s coastal lowlands were already experiencing nuisance flooding during storm surge events. Rising Sea Levels threaten critical provincial infrastructure and over 2,500 people in the region. The CFAS introduced four general adaptation approaches: Protect, Accommodate, Retreat, and Combination. With this foundation, the CFAS was split into five stages, with each phase narrowing down the adaptation options through extensive community engagement and technical analysis. At the time of the study, the CFAS project was in Phase 4; ten key adaptation measures were identified and grouped based on timescale and budget. The final phase was completed in 2019, which combined the final preferred options into a comprehensive, long-term strategy for the City.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The City of Surrey manages the largest flood control system in British Columbia, with over 100 kilometres of dikes along rivers and coastal waters. As a result of climate change, Surrey is projected to experience more frequent and severe flooding from Sea Level rise and storm surges. Other impacts of Sea Level rise include rising groundwater levels, saltwater intrusion, and increased shoreline erosion. Studies showed that the existing flood control protection in Surrey was not sufficient to deal with the projected future impacts of climate change. It was evident that significant investments in upgrading existing flood control measures were needed. In 2014, the City of Surrey started an engineering review of climate change impacts on the drainage utility. The technical studies identified where to prioritize dike upgrades by pinpointing where and when the City was most vulnerable. The CFAS team spent considerable time engaging with the community to further understand the intricacies of the issue. Educational workshops, descriptive videos, online surveys, social media outreach, and various other tools were used to establish an understanding of the challenges posed by Sea Level rise, and also to identify shared values in the community on preliminary adaptation options.

Identifying Actions

The CFAS centred around a participatory, community-driven planning approach directly engaging residents, stakeholders, and other partners, including Semiahmoo First Nation, community and environmental organizations, business associations and groups, senior governments, farmers, the agricultural community, and neighbouring jurisdictions to identify short, medium and long-term adaptation options. The emphasis on community engagement was a strategic choice to ensure the adaptation options developed would be broadly supported, robust, transparent, and defensible. The CFAS focused on three low-lying areas to ensure no one in the community felt singled out, and to further demonstrate that this was a city-wide issue.

The first phase of the CFAS centred on extensive public and stakeholder engagement via multiple forms of outreach (workshops, youth events, compelling local narratives, etc.) to identify preliminary adaptation options. Phase 2 and 3 focused on evaluating the various options by assessing them across engineering, economic, social, cultural and ecological indicators. Then, stakeholder and partner input refined the adaptation options, which included the status quo, managed retreat, coastal realignment, building coastal barriers, and more. A more technical analysis in Phase 4 would refine a small number of robust, broadly supported adaptation strategies into preferred strategies based on cost and partnerships. Finally, Phase 5 integrates the preferred options into a long-term strategy for Surrey. Throughout the planning process, the CFAS team faced the challenge of making complex information publicly accessible. It was crucial to engage the public and listen to them in order to gain support for such a significant initiative.


As the CFAS project was really about creating a long-term plan for the city, there is not much to discuss regarding implementation of specific adaptation measures. However, the City of Surrey did closely follow the five-phase plan when developing the CFAS from 2016-2019, implementing the various strategies outlined in the planning phase to engage the community and construct a plan consistent with the shared values of stakeholders. Descriptive videos were utilized to help residents visualize the impacts of Sea Level rise. Workshops were held to engage and educate key stakeholders and public participants, including some bus and foot tours of the study area. Local residents, farmers, First Nations, and business owners were included as speakers at these events and in marketing materials to provide a compelling local narrative. CFAS also used community mailers, online surveys, social media outreach, photo contests, interactive story maps, youth events, stakeholder-specific workshops, and pop-up outreach stations in the most vulnerable communities.

With the final phase completed in 2019, implementation of the specific preferred adaptation actions is set to commence. The CFAS categorizes these preferred measures by timeframe and budget, allowing the City of Surrey to determine the optimal sequence of implementation.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The CFAS project has been praised for its community engagement efforts. Through a participatory process, the city heard from the public and several diverse stakeholders on the trade-offs associated with various adaptation options. This engagement from the community helped narrow down the list of measures in Phase 4 to ten adaptation options for coastal flooding. These options were further evaluated by the CFAS team to determine feasibility, timeframes, and costs. The finalized adaptation measures, grouped by timescale and budget, made their way into Surrey’s long-term strategy where a specific implementation strategy will be developed. This unique project, centred around the principle of community interaction and engagement, offered a few valuable lessons for similarly forward-looking municipalities:

– Building a shared, long-term vision for the community allows regions to get ahead of the risks associated with Sea Level rise
– Engaging multiple levels of government, especially when provincially and federally regulated infrastructure runs through the area, is an important step that can take a local project to the next level
– Engaging the public involves walking a fine line; people must see the sites and hear from local speakers to make the issue feel ‘real’. However, it is important not to scare people in the process – the narrative is important. Carrie Baron, Surrey’s Drainage Manager, offers great advice: “Don’t talk at your residents, listen to them.”

Next Steps

Since the publication of the case study, the final phase of the CFAS has been completed. With a comprehensive, long-term Coastal Flood Adaptation Strategy developed, the next step for the City of Surrey is to implement the specific adaptation measures outlined in the final document. Since the identified measures vary in timescale and cost, the city will have to make decisions regarding the order of implementation. The thorough analysis and grouping of the adaptation measures in the five-phase CFAS allows the city to make informed decisions regarding the prioritization of adaptation actions.

In addition to informing the long-term strategy for the City of Surrey, the findings of the CFAS will also feed into the Lower Mainland Flood Management Strategy, a regional study by the Fraser Basin Council. Thus, there are multiple constructive uses of the preferred adaptation measures that arose from three years of extensive community engagement and thorough cost-benefit analysis. Linda Hepner, mayor of Surrey, stated, “By getting ahead of the issue, and setting a direction now for where we want to be in 100 years, we are positioning Surrey to make smarter investments in the protection of residential neighbourhoods, businesses, significant habitat areas and provincially critical infrastructure.”