Dikes overtopping, highway may be closed for days, Abbotsford mayor says

Mayor Henry Braun said the flooding on Sumas Prairie is the worst he has ever seen in 68 years, and a key dike could be breached in hours

By Tyler Olsen | November 16, 2021 |3:55 pm

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Highway 1 is likely to be closed for days and it could take weeks until floodwaters recede from Sumas Prairie, according to Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun.

Floodwaters from the Nooksack River continue to flow into farmland to the southeast of Abbotsford’s urban core, Braun said shortly after touring the vast Sumas Prairie area on land and in a helicopter. The prairie—a flat plain at the bottom of a 15km-long valley between Abbotsford and Chilliwack—is one of BC’s most fertile farming regions, producing much of the province’s milk and poultry products.

“I saw more water than I’ve ever seen on Sumas Prairie,” Braun said. “It’s deep… You don’t really appreciate what’s out there until you see it from the air, but there’s water… It’s got to be over half of the prairie.”

He said the water is now overtopping a key dike meant to contain just such a flood. Braun says the water is breaching the dike along a vast span. And as it moves to the northeast, across some of BC’s most fertile land, it will start to refill the former bed of Sumas Lake, a waterbody drained a century ago.

“That water started to back up when it hit the Sumas River dike. And that dike will hold the water I think probably five or six feet [deep]. But it’s overtopping from the helicopter, so I’m worried. I’m worried there’s going to be a couple breaches in the not too distant future. Like in the next hour or so.”

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Photos: The view of flooding in Abbotsford from the air.

The bed of what was once Sumas lake sits around sea level and is normally kept dry by the Barrowtown Pump Station to the north, which pumps the water out of a series of drainage canals and into the Sumas River, which then flows into the Fraser. But Barrowtown’s three large pumps—the largest in Western Canada—cannot keep up with the enormous amount of water.

“I’ve lived here for 68 years,” Braun said. “I’ve never seen this much water.”

Although the area is under evacuation order, many farmers continue to attempt to rescue livestock. Braun, who raises cattle himself, said he understands.

At one cattle operation, Braun said he watched as farmers attempted to rescue cattle stranded in five feet of water.

“They were pulling the cows out of the barn with powerboats. The water is five feet deep and there are people in the water and they are just shivering and shaking.”

The closure of the highway has stranded many people. They shouldn’t expect to get home soon, Braun suggested.

“The freeway, I think, is going to be underwater for days. And then once the waters recede enough so that you can actually drive on the asphalt, [Ministry of Transportation] is going to have to inspect the shoulders. I’m sure there’s going to be some structural issues before they can let fully-loaded transport trucks, 80,000 vehicles a day… back onto [the highway].”

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Some places may find respite, as the floodwaters move northeast. Water is already receding in the Huntingdon neighbourhood adjacent to the US border, he said. And as water flows into the Sumas Lake bed, some water may recede from areas currently submerged.

But for Sumas Prairie, the complexity of draining the area will make the job difficult, and leave water in place for a long time, Braun said.

“This isn’t going to be over next week, just because the sun’s shining today.”

Sign up below to receive our daily newsletter, with the latest flood updates, and the context you need to understand what is happening in the Fraser Valley. On Wednesday, we will take you inside the story of Sumas Lake, and the role it and the Nooksack River are playing in the current flood situation.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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