The bureaucracy and the flood: disaster hits the valley’s rural communities

The province delayed approving money for an urgent river fix, while refusing to fund upgrades to another dike in dire condition. The Fraser Valley Regional District says things have to change.

By Grace Kennedy | November 30, 2021 |9:34 pm

Local officials say they begged the province for help to stop the Coquihalla River from destroying Othello Road. They checked in every day, but didn’t hear back. By the time the province finally agreed to finance the urgent work on Monday evening, the river had already destroyed two homes and part of the road.

Now the Fraser Valley Regional District is urging the province to act quicker to help residents in rural areas.

“Throughout this event, we have experienced delays in getting funding approvals, and roads, water systems, diking infrastructure and sewer systems, as well as bridges are at serious risk of either washing away or suffering catastrophic damage,” FVRD chair Jason Lum said in a press conference Tuesday, as yet another atmospheric river was swelling local rivers.

“We need our partners in government to react quickly when a response comes—not hours or days after the fact. It is clear to us that the response system is broken and needs to be addressed.”

The FVRD is the municipal government for unincorporated rural areas throughout the Fraser Valley. Those regions are, almost by definition, sparsely populated and at significant risk of flooding and landslides, with steep slopes and numerous waterways. Although the FVRD acts like a municipality for things like zoning and land-use planning, the province is responsible for addressing issues on roadways and culverts, Lum said. (You can read more about what a regional district is in our story from September.)

Since the start of the first storm three weeks ago, the FVRD has submitted more than 50 separate requests to Emergency Management BC to get financial assistance during the crisis. Some of those requests, including $30,000 to pay volunteer firefighters for their efforts, were denied. Others simply haven’t been addressed on time. Overall, Lum said, the ministry response has been lacking.

“If local governments are really to take the lead on emergency events like this, we need to be trusted by other orders of government to do the job.”

And while Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said earlier Tuesday that his ministry hadn’t received any requests of assistance from the FVRD, Lum pointed to several specific requests for critical funding that went unheeded or dismissed.

The FVRD could have acted on its own, the province said—it doesn’t need provincial permission to undertake projects in rural areas. But Lum said the FVRD doesn’t have the legal authority to simply spend money in places like Othello Road and that, without the assurance of provincial funding, residents who had already lost their homes could have ended up footing the bill.

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Othello Road is washed away

Graham Zillwood’s house was swept away by the raging Coquihalla River on Nov. 15. When the flood receded, his roof was left on the scoured riverbank. 📸 Janelle Zillwood/GoFundMe

The Coquihalla River has swept away at least three homes on Othello Road, and many others are on evacuation order as the most recent storm progresses. The FVRD said at least some of the destruction may have been avoided if the province had moved faster on answering its requests.

Othello Road connects the District of Hope to the Coquihalla east of Kawkawa Lake. The road runs alongside the Coquihalla River. The street is host to a number of houses, as well as the Othello Campground. It also provides access to Othello Tunnels, one of the region’s largest natural tourist attractions.

After the first storm two weeks ago, the Coquihalla River began eating away at the riverbank. Graham Zillwood’s house and bed-and-breakfast was destroyed by the river on Nov. 15; his daughter, Janelle, wrote that her father had been able to get out of the house with his dog and cat, but that everything else was taken with it. Portions of Othello Campground were also washed away during this first storm.

The Fraser Valley Regional District issued an evacuation order on Nov. 18—three days after Zillwood’s home was destroyed—for eight properties on Othello Road and Fish Camp Road. Six days after that, the FVRD said its emergency operations centre requested $1.5 million from the province to shore up Othello Road, which was at risk of washing into the river entirely. (Images from Nov. 15 show the road was being chewed up by the river.)

We asked the FVRD why it took until Nov. 24 to submit the request for road work, which was more than a week after the river had already begun eroding the bank. Lum said the district was “following a process,” and had identified risks in that area early on. Geotechnical staff had to examine the site to—in Lum’s words—“basically ground truth to the situation.”

The province approved the FVRD’s request to bring the engineers to Othello Road on Nov. 19. Five days later, the report was complete and the FVRD sent it to the province. The $1.5 million project would have been roughly 4% of the FVRD’s annual budget—if it had been able to fund it at all.

Typically, projects in regional districts like the FVRD require a service establishment bylaw in order to tax residents to fund the project. (Such services are typically things like sewer systems or animal control.) Once the bylaw is established, it creates a service area, which has a financial account attached to it. The process is lengthy, as many municipal processes are.

There is no service area for the Othello Road area, Lum said. And therefore, no money.

“Regional districts don’t have discretionary spending accounts for emergency situations with no service area,” Lum said in a press release issued late Tuesday evening. “The FVRD has no funding available to address those challenges, even if it wished to exercise its authority under emergency legislation.”

The FVRD said it followed up with the province, but didn’t receive the money it needed to go ahead with the work. Neither did it receive a refusal.

On Nov. 28, four days after the FVRD sought the province’s help, the river destroyed two more houses, including one rented by a family with young children and another that had been owned by a local couple.

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On Nov. 29, the day after the two homes were destroyed, the FVRD issued an expanded evacuation order for five additional properties on Othello Road and nearby streets. Later that day, Emergency Management BC gave the go ahead for the repair efforts. By then, it was too late. The area they were trying to save had already washed away.

Today, there are more homes at risk of washing into the river. The emergency works that had been approved may need to be reevaluated in light of the additional damage. Lum said he couldn’t speculate on whether the road will be able to be rebuilt, or if people would be able to return to their homes.

“It’s too soon for me to speculate on whether or not they can rebuild exactly that area. And it wouldn’t be helpful for me to give information that’s incorrect and perhaps sends the wrong message,” he said. “But rest assured that as soon as we can start to evaluate the situation that we will, when it’s safe.”

Late Tuesday, the neighbouring District of Hope issued an evacuation alert for 114 properties along the Coquihalla River.

Wilson Road dike at risk

In the Chilliwack River Valley, at least 21 properties have been evacuated due to dangerous water levels in the Chilliwack River. And a key dike protecting them is at risk of collapse.

The Wilson Road dike follows along the Chilliwack River and protects a number of homes at a bend in the waterway near the Baker Trails community. It also provides flood protection to Chilliwack Lake Road, the main point of access to the entire Chilliwack River Valley.

As of Tuesday afternoon, at least two houses were at serious risk of falling into the river, Lum said, and pointed to Wilson Road dike failing as the cause. Lum said FVRD had made requests to try to repair the dike, but that the province have denied those requests.

“Proceeding with work without provincial authorization with the risk of having expenses turned down would add insult to injury to people who have already lost their homes and would later have to be taxed for the repair bill,” he said.

Other requests denied

Chilliwack River Valley firefighters helping community members sandbag their homes in the dark. The province denied a $30,000 funding request to pay FVRD firefighters for their work. 📸 Darlene DS/Facebook

Among the regional district’s 50-plus requests to EMBC was $30,000 in funding for the district’s volunteer fire departments. The firefighters had been working to assist evacuees and others for 10 days straight, Lum said. The funds would have gone to compensate the volunteers for their time.

According to Lum, the request was denied.

“To have a request for $30,000 to compensate those incredible volunteers for the round-the-clock work they are doing shows a complete lack of understanding for our situation and community,” he said. “It’s an insult to those volunteers who are out risking their lives for their neighbour.”

The FVRD has fire departments in Boston Bar, Columbia Valley, the North Fraser region, Yale, Hemlock Valley, Popkum, and the Chilliwack River Valley.

The Chilliwack River Valley department has been particularly busy helping neighbours sandbag their homes as the Chilliwack River rose dangerously high. The department also responded to 36 incidents during the first wave of the storm, including one water rescue where two residents and their pets needed to be evacuated from their home.

Do you need provincial approval? No. But also, yes.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth during a flooding and mudslide briefing Tuesday afternoon. 📸 Province of British Columbia/Flickr

Yesterday morning, before the FVRD released its urgent plea, The Current asked Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth about the FVRD’s concerns around delays in getting permission for urgent repairs, and asked him to explain what the delays were. He said there was none.

“There is no request for permission for urgent repairs to prevent flooding,” he said.

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During the FVRD press conference, we asked Lum what his response was to that statement.

“I was made aware of what the Minister stated earlier. And I’ll just say that it is concerning that those urgent requests—and we’ve made over 50 of them to date—they’re well documented,” Lum said. “I can’t really comment on why or why not they haven’t made it to the minister’s desk at this point.

“But I will say that I would invite a call directly from Minister Farnworth so I can bring him up to speed with the situation evolving on the ground here.”

It is an issue of semantics. Technically the FVRD’s requests were not for permission to do the work, but rather to get the funding necessary to make it happen. But, as Lum said in his evening release, regional districts don’t always have the funding available for the areas that need emergency work.

Farnworth sent a statement to the FVRD not long after the press conference. In it, he said that regional districts do not need to have their spending approved by the province, particularly in emergency situations. “In fact,” he added, “there are countless communities around the province taking the actions necessary to protect their communities as we speak.”

However, regional districts are encouraged to get authorization of financial assistance, to make sure the province would pay for it, particularly when dealing with expensive items.

Lum said the FVRD isn’t trying to be antagonistic towards the province, and thanked the provincial staff who had been able to provide help so far. But, he said, the process for making these requests is broken.

“I’ve seen how the provincial government has responded during the COVID pandemic, where funds were forwarded through to the regional district to be able to use an emergency and critical pandemic response,” he said. “I don’t see a huge difference in this unprecedented event.”

Would having the FVRD’s requests immediately approved have saved the two homes on Othello Road that fell into the river over the weekend? Lum isn’t sure. But he does know those requests were necessary.

“When we make funding requests of this nature, we do so in order to provide works that we believe will protect property and personal safety,” he said. “When we make these requests, they are because we believe the works need to be undertaken, and we need those requests to be granted without delay.”

More of our in-depth coverage of the 2021 Fraser Valley floods:

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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