Will billions in ‘recovery’ money boost flood defences?

BC has budgeted $1.5 billion for flood recovery, but how much goes towards improving substandard dikes remains to be seen.

By Tyler Olsen | February 23, 2022 |5:00 am

Upgrading British Columbia dikes is expected to cost billions of dollars, but it is still unclear how much of the money budgeted for the province’s flood recovery will go towards preventing the next disaster.

In the budget announced yesterday, the province allocated about $1.5 billion to help people and communities with “flood recovery.” Much of that money is likely destined for the Fraser Valley, though the precise figures are still unknown. (Cities like Abbotsford have yet to send the province a full accounting of damages, and individuals can still also apply for compensation for flood losses. The province’s current system covers up to 80% of flood damages. But municipalities and homeowners have called for the province to change that formula; homeowners face a compensation cap of $300,000 that hasn’t budged since it was set more than two decades ago.  )

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The $1.5 billion announced Tuesday—which is on top of $5 billion pledged by the federal government—could be used to repair dikes and compensate property owners, farmers, municipalities, First Nations, and others impacted during November’s storms. But cities and towns impacted by November’s floods also hope that it will be put together preventing the next disaster.

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun said he was pleased by the amount of money announced by the province. He said it, along with the federal money, could go a long way towards bringing all the city’s dikes up to the one-in-500-year flood standard set by the province.

“I’m pleased,” he told The Current Tuesday evening. He pointed to the budget’s large contingency allocation, which is money set aside for unforeseen costs.  “When you look at the contingency as a percentage of the budget, it is quite a bit higher than I’ve ever seen in a provincial budget. And I think it speaks to the fact that they don’t yet know what the totality of the costs are.”

But it remains to be seen how much of the money will be consumed by repairing the damages from the last flood, and how much will go toward boosting BC’s flood defences.

Abbotsford has not yet submitted its full list of damages; Braun estimates that repairs to damaged infrastructure is likely to top out around $150 million. But improving the substandard dikes that protect thousands of residents from Hope to Langley will cost many times that sum.  Tuesday’s budget provided a moderate boost for a flood protection and mitigation fund. And new service plans allude to the creation of a new provincewide strategy that will change how flood protections are funded in BC.

Since 2003, municipalities have been tasked with funding flood protection infrastructure, though few have had the funds to upgrade and maintain dikes to an adequate level. That’s especially true in the Fraser Valley. In 2018, Abbotsford estimated that bringing its dikes up to standard to prevent a one-in-500-year Fraser River flood would cost $420 million. Now, Braun estimates the cost could be closer to $2 billion. Chilliwack could also be facing a huge bill. And residents and businesses in Langley, Mission, Agassiz, and Hope all sit behind dikes that could be expected to fail in the event of a large Fraser flood.

Premier John Horgan acknowledged last fall that municipalities don’t have the money to fund expensive flood prevention infrastructure. He promised that his government would work to develop a new system. And work has begun on a new provincial flood strategy. Given the damages from November’s disaster, Tuesday’s budget will only provide a fraction of the funds needed to sufficiently protect BC’s residents from floods.

In Tuesday’s budget, the province said it will put $120 million into a fund to “help power local emergency services and operations centres, map floodplains, support flood risk assessments and more.” But that fund isn’t new. Overseen by the Union of BC Municipalities, it doled out $77 million in 2021. The province has also set aside some money to expand the River Forecast Centre and its own provincial floodplain mapping program.

The immediate focus appears to be on creating a new “B.C. Flood Strategy” that could lay out the first steps to overhauling how BC hopes to keep rising water at bay. The Service Plan for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development says the creation and implementation of a flood strategy is important to improve community resilience. But the plan’s complexity is likely to lengthen the timeline: the strategy will also involve BC’s public safety ministry, the federal government, Indigenous people, First Nations, local governments, and various other “external bodies.”

It remains to be seen when the strategy will be finished, the money will start to flow, and dikes will be raised. Local mayors, including Braun in Abbotsford and Peter Robb in Hope, have expressed concern that damage from November’s floods will increase the susceptibility of riverside communities to another flood as snow begins to melt this spring.

“I always said the harder work was in front of us and the proof would be in the pudding,” Braun said. “We’ve been saying this is what needs to be done for a long time, and are we actually going to do it? Or are we going to forget? Because six months from now people’s minds are going to turn to something else.”

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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