‘Sometimes we’re shaking our head’: Hope waits for province as flood danger increases

It will cost the District of Hope $11 million to protect its community from future floods on the Coquihalla River, but says provincial money isn't coming in fast enough

By Tyler Olsen | February 7, 2022 |5:00 am

The District of Hope says it needs $11 million to stop the Coquihalla River from potentially damaging homes and turning the town into an island during an even more serious flood.

But help from the provincial government has been slow to arrive, leaving Hope officials exasperated. The province has now conceded that its current system and rules aren’t sufficient to meet the tasks faced by flood-hit communities.

The damage from November’s devastating floods could have been far worse, Hope’s council heard at a meeting in late January.

Although the Coquihalla destroyed homes and roads just beyond Hope’s limits last November, the river mostly kept to its course inside the district. But it could have been much worse. Engineer Brian LaCas told council the Coquihalla came close to breaching its banks and flooding homes in several areas despite the river only reaching 10- to 20-year flood levels. He warned that the river only reached 10- to 20-year flood levels, and that If any more water had come through, it could have inundated several neighbourhoods, turned one of the town’s business corridors into a river, and damaged Fraser Canyon Hospital.

“Many people have been saying this was the great flood,” LaCas said. “It wasn’t.”

November has exposed the vulnerabilities facing many parts of town and destabilized banks, but city officials asking for money to quickly repair and upgrade the town’s flood protections have received “push back” from the provincial government, council was told.

PREVIOUSLY: Small towns, big disasters—Part 1: The unique post-flood challenges facing residents and governments in rural communities

Watch the meeting below. See the presentation here

 

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An increasingly vulnerable community

November’s floods saw peak flows of around 686 cubic metres of water coming down the Coquihalla. But with climate change factored in, a one-in-200-year flood could see twice as much water trying to make its way through the narrow Coquihalla corridor, LaCas told council. Such a flood—or even a smaller one—could swamp not only local subdivisions and homes, but much of the Old Princeton Way business area where McDonald’s and other traveller-oriented businesses are located. It could temporarily create a second channel between the Coquihalla and the Fraser, essentially turning much of Hope into an island.

A 200-year flood would see twice as much water as came down the Coquihalla in November 📷 District of Hope
A 200-year flood would see twice as much water as came down the Coquihalla in November 📷 District of Hope

LaCas said it was “unbelievable” just how close the river had come from cresting the substandard dike that protected one subdivision. Hope has been planning to increase its flood protections for several years. Those plans included a project to create a wall of concrete blocks to stop a future flood along Old Princeton Way. November’s flood has expedited preparatory work there and in several other areas. (The district hopes to create side channels, boost dikes, and remove a gravel bar at the mouth of the river.)

Officials say the work is urgently needed now. The issue is not simply that November’s flood has exposed the vulnerability of the town, but that the damage it did has weakened Hope’s defences and made a future disaster more likely. Even moderately high rivers could now pose a substantial threat to homes.

“Hope is even more flood- and erosion-vulnerable than it was before,” LaCas said. “You can have a five-year, a 10-year flood come in. It doesn’t have to be the 200-year flood.”

In addition to the work along Old Princeton Way, other key projects would see a higher dike built to protect homes at the north end of town, and flood channels created at the Hope Golf & Country Club, near the mouth of the river. The golf course was heavily damaged in November, with the Coquihalla blasting a channel through its fairways and greens. The district hopes to be able to recontour parts of the course so that it can handle future floodwaters while minimizing erosion damage and alleviating pressure on the river’s opposite bank, where it could threaten large numbers of homes.

Crews have worked to beef up flood defenses near Fraser Canyon Hospital 📷 District of Hope
Crews have worked to beef up flood defenses near Fraser Canyon Hospital 📷 District of Hope

One big project has been nearly completed. At Fraser Canyon Hospital, where the Coquihalla river had eroded the bank and threatened the facility, crews have nearly completed work that will both fix damage from November, and protect against a one-in-200-year event. But LaCas said it has been much harder to get funding for other necessary projects that would increase protection for homes and businesses around town.

“With the hospital money that’s being spent, we thought immediately the rest would flow. But it’s not.”

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Push back from the province

Hope says its total emergency works will cost around $11 million, and that it needs help from senior levels of government to pay for them. But although the federal government has delivered $5 billion to the province, Hope says it has been unable to access all the funding it needs.

A request to improve flood protections at a campground has already been denied, council was told. Other planned projects have been altered to include fish channels, in part because the town has been told such works could allow it to more speedily get funding from the province.

Provincial officials have told staff that more of the work should be done on a recovery basis, rather than an emergency basis.

That matters for two reasons. First, the province funds 100% of emergency works but currently only 80% of recovery works. Although it has been suggested that formula could change, at the moment that could leave Hope taxpayers facing a $2 million bill if flood protection. Second, recovery projects are traditionally financed to the point where the previous structures are repaired—improvements are generally not covered. But almost by definition, the flood protections damaged last November are in need of not only repair, but improvement.

“The whole purpose of doing these works is to improve and prevent future occurrences,” council was told by a staff member. “We’re really pushing hard, and we are getting push back, unfortunately.”

In an emailed statement to The Current, Emergency Management BC officials said the agency had provided $1.7 million to Hope for flood work and is continuing to work with both the municipality, and the federal government.

While existing Disaster Financial Assistance programs provide for rebuilding to pre-disaster condition and are helping meet immediate needs to restore damaged infrastructure, we share communities’ interest in building back to a more resilient standard in many cases,” the statement read. EMBC also acknowledged that some of its current rules are insufficient to meet the needs of communities. “ The ongoing recovery work has identified a number of areas where the existing rules and criteria for programs, such as Disaster Financial Assistance, are still leaving a number of gaps and unmet needs… Staff are working on options for government consideration around these issues.”

But time is of the essence, Hope’s chief administrative officer, John Fortoloczky, told council in January. He warned that more damage can be expected in the spring if the district can’t get to work soon.

“I’ve made it clear at my level to the provincial government that unless we start work very quickly on our suggested, applied-for projects, we need to expect considerable erosion during the freshet and we could see loss of property or buildings, specifically on Gardener,” he said.

Fortoloczky pointed to the work done to protect the hospital and said similar work needs to be done soon in other areas.

“Sometimes we’re just shaking our heads as to why they won’t move forward.”

Hope’s mayor and staff will be meeting with provincial officials tomorrow.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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