Why stopping Sumas Prairie from flooding is ‘not politically feasible’

Stopping the Nooksack from flooding north has been stymied by ‘political considerations’ for years. Despite 2021’s devastating flood, that's still the case. This is why.

By Tyler Olsen | October 6, 2022 |5:00 am

This is the second story in a two-part series on how the Nooksack River has evolved, and how humans have shaped where and how it floods. The first part can be read here.

You can find all of the The Current’s groundbreaking in-depth coverage of the Fraser Valley disasters here.


The Nooksack River could no longer be contained.

Thirty-two years ago, after heavy rain on the slopes of Mt. Baker in November of 1990, the river overtopped its banks.

Near Everson, Wash., about 10km south of the Canada/US border, water spilled across a farmer’s fields and began flowing downhill and to the north. The water flowed through Everson, inundated the small town of Sumas, Wash., then crossed over the border into the western part of Sumas Prairie.

Near one Abbotsford farm, it poured toward an elevated rail line that served as a makeshift flood barrier.

“The railway tracks broke and it came over the top like a river,” a farmhand told the Vancouver Sun in 1990.

The Nooksack flooded homes, killed livestock, and closed critical transportation routes, including Highway 1. Fortunately, the water stopped rising before it poured over a dike protecting Sumas Lake from refilling.

BC’s deputy environment minister toured the carnage.

“It looked to us like this was one of the worst years; it may have been your one-in-200-years flood,” Richard Dalon told the Sun.

The Nooksack River flooded western parts of Sumas Prairie in 1990. 📷 The Reach Gallery Archives/P8450
Left: The Nooksack River flooded western parts of Sumas Prairie in 1990. 📷 The Reach Gallery Archives/P8450; Right: Lower Nooksack River Comprehensive Flood Hazard Management Plan: Nooksack River Flood History

Canadians weren’t the only victims.

In the United States, residents, businesses, farmers, and livestock also suffered. Homes were destroyed. Roads and highways were also closed. Millions of dollars in damage were incurred.

The 1990 flood was a disaster for both countries, and one that sparked discussions about how to prevent the next major calamity.

So what happened to those efforts? Why was the Nooksack allowed to spill north last year and devastate Sumas Prairie? And why are American officials refusing to even consider the one approach that could prevent a future disaster?

The simple answer: politics.

Getting any more complex than that requires untangling a decades-long mess involving seven levels of government, evolving environmental standards and principles, and the sometimes contradictory laws of physics and politics. It’s complicated. But don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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Beyond complicated

“With the Nooksack River things are often not quite as simple as they first appear.” —Lower Nooksack River Unsteady-Flow Model and Analysis of Initial Scenarios Near Everson, 2004.

Look at the above quote and realize that it appears in the sixth chapter, on the 93rd page, of a study called Lower Nooksack River Unsteady-Flow Model and Analysis of Initial Scenarios Near Everson.

The Unsteady-Flow Model and Analysis was a study written by experts for experts about an extremely specific subject. It was intended to be a thorough and complex study about an incredibly complicated topic. And even so, with that audience in mind, the authors got to page 95 and thought “Whoa, we should really emphasize here that this river is really damn complicated.”

The Nooksack’s history and natural geography, which we wrote about in the first part in this series, is a key component of this. The river may only have flowed along its current path for a few hundred years. That influences both the direction of its floods, and its presence within its own floodplain. In short: it has a natural tendency to change at a rapid rate.

But the complexity is also due to how humans have settled along the river, and where they have drawn arbitrary lines with deep, profound consequences.

When the Nooksack floods at Everson, much of its water heads north towards Canada. 🗺 Tyler Olsen/Bing Maps

The core geographic facts are these:

The Nooksack drains the foothills from Mt. Baker. When a lot of rain falls (or snow melts) the river rises and threatens to spill its banks.

When the river floods near Everson, a town nearly within sight of Abbotsford, some of that water escapes into an old drainage basin and flows north, downhill to the Fraser River. (To understand why this happens, read Part 1.)

This geographic feature is alternately called the “flow split” or the “overflow corridor” by Whatcom County. It’s this unique characteristic that makes trying to stop the river from flooding so political—and so different from most rivers.

Downstream from Everson, along the Nooksack River’s main channel, residents in and around the cities of Lynden and Ferndale also commonly see flooding.

But the scale of those floods is limited because of that overflow corridor. In large floods, huge quantities of water leave the Nooksack’s river basin and pour north at Everson toward the Canadian border. All that northward-bound water never ends up flowing toward Lynden and Ferndale. The overflow area serves as a sort of a pressure relief valve.

But this creates an obvious dilemma. That overflow can have significant consequences, as the people of Sumas Prairie found last year.

For Canadian residents, the ideal solution would be to stop that water from coming north by building a dike near Everson. A company of consultants hired by the City of Abbotsford suggested that solution as recently as two years ago.

Building a dike at Everson could spare Canada billions of dollars of damages. And while it might cost $40 million, it would be far cheaper than raising dikes or drilling holes through mountains, two other potential solutions.

Mitigation Option #3 involves expanding the existing levee system at Everson to block the Nooksack River overflows. This option provides the highest benefit when isolating the damages it prevents within Canada, although additional analysis is needed on the US side to include the damages that are also prevented within the US as well as the additional mitigation that would be required along the Nooksack River. Until this additional work is completed, none of the three mitigation options evaluated for this study are recommended to be implemented at this time.

  • Nooksack River Overflow Flood Mitigation Plan Final Report – November 30, 2020 [Click here to read]

The problem is that doing so would, by necessity, inevitably increase the amount of floodwater that would go west toward Lynden and Ferndale.

On the complexity of the Nooksack, the Americans and Canadians were in full agreement:

“Following a review of all work to date on potential flood mitigation efforts for the Sumas Prairie, this study found that there are no simple solutions for mitigating such flood damages that result from Nooksack River overflow flood events,” the consultants declared.

Living on (and sometimes in) the Nooksack

Few people know more about the Everson overflow than Keith Hoekema.

Hoekema grew up in the city—not just in Everson, but on the single piece of property that divides the Nooksack River from the Sumas River basin. Hoekema’s parents have owned the property for decades.

“My father, who’s semi-retired now, has always said that he was always going to live on the Nooksack,” Hoekema said. “He just never knew what side of it, meaning that it could change.”

The Nooksack, as we wrote in the first part of this story, once flowed north and could do so again at some point in the future.

Large floods occur regularly, and simple floods are common: over the half-century the Hoekemas have farmed their land, the river has poured into their fields more than a dozen times. Prior to the installation of automatic river monitoring stations, Hoekema’s dad, Percy, used to have a list of numbers beside the phone to call when the water started heading north. One number was for the City of Abbotsford.

So the Hoekemas have seen the river mad. But last November was something different.

“We got worrying Sunday night and my parents, who have weathered every flood in that house since 1971, said ‘We’re getting the hell out of here,’” he said. “They knew it was going to be that big before it even went over the bank.”

The Nooksack began to flood at Everson on Sunday, Nov. 14. From there, gravity did the rest. Were the fields dry, the water would have slowly filled them up before moving north. But they were already inundated and full of water, and so the Nooksack’s floodwaters quickly poured north into Sumas, Wash., and then into Canada.

Meanwhile, west of Everson, near the cities of Ferndale and Lynden, the water was also quickly rising and flooding properties. While his family still farms the Everson land, Keith Hoekema now lives near Ferndale. He can only imagine what would have happened if the water went to Canada instead flowed west. The consequences for his community would have been devastating.

“If, say, we did build a big enough levee and all that water went to Ferndale, it would have blown the levee out and took out most of Lynden and Ferndale,” he said.

The choice

The Nooksack River’s two-pronged floodplain requires governments to choose which areas should be exposed to increase flood risk, and which should not. And the position of Whatcom County is that blocking the water from flowing north at Everson would cause too many downstream problems and that there are better options.

It’s possible the county is right. It’s also possible that actually building the dike would be an engineering nightmare.

That is Hoekema’s view.

“You’d have to essentially remove the city of Everson today,” he said. “You would have to build levees, probably a series of levees, through most of the town going north to keep the water out of the Sumas drainage.”

But Abbotsford’s flood experts, though, suggested a dike might be relatively cheap. And it’s also possible that, when all is said and done, that a dike at Everson could do more good than harm—especially if damage in Abbotsford is factored in and paired with downstream improvements in Whatcom County.

But nobody actually knows what would happen if a dike was built because, for decades, American decision makers have steadfastly refused to even study the possibility.

After the 1990 flooding did an estimated $142 million of damage, Whatcom County created a new committee to decide just how to manage the troublesome river.

The committee was composed of politicians and members of most of the communities along the Nooksack’s path.

One of its first major tasks was setting the terms of what would eventually become the county’s bible for managing the Nooksack River: the 1999 Comprehensive Flood Hazard Management Plan.

Whatcom County's Lower Nooksack Comprehensive Flood Hazard Management Plan has formed the basis for the county's flood planning work for more than two decades.
Whatcom County’s Lower Nooksack Comprehensive Flood Hazard Management Plan has formed the basis for the county’s flood planning work for more than two decades.

One of those key early decisions involved deciding whether to consider the possibility of building a dike to stop the Everson overflow. Not build it. Just consider it.

The committee voted no.

In two consecutive sentences on the fifth page of the plan, the authors wrote that a major reason for the plan was to analyze the flow split; and, paradoxically, that the plan would contain no substantial analysis of the consequences of building a dike to prevent Canada-bound floods.

Instead, the plan says the committee simply decided that “the existing split of floodwaters between the Everson overflow and the lower Nooksack River channel should be maintained.”

It was this decision—deliberately made without analyzing the option of eliminating the flow split—that ensured the allowed the Nooksack to pour toward Sumas Prairie last year. The chief reason for not considering cutting off the overflow was the same one officials are giving this year: a lack of public, and thus political, support.

“The reach-wide management strategy of preventing all overflows and directing all the flow downstream on the mainstem [of the river] is not likely to be politically feasible,” the 1999 plan declared with remarkable candidness.

That plan says there are two “points of view” about stopping water from flooding toward Sumas and Canada. Those two viewpoints are pretty simple.

One view is that a cost/benefit analysis might show that building a dike may be beneficial, even accounting for the knock-on effects of more flooding downstream. Hence officials should consider such action.

(That viewpoint doesn’t say a dike should be built. All it does is suggest that the idea is worth consideration.)

The other view is that the idea is not even worth considering. This, the plan suggests, is linked to the idea that “the overflow is a natural occurrence, and diverting the water downstream in the mainstem represents an artificial increase in downstream flooding.”

It is this viewpoint that has largely carried the day in Whatcom County over the last three decades. It’s also the viewpoint that has been repeated in meetings this year, with officials and politicians insisting that the Nooksack’s northward flood is simply the result of gravity.

In reality, gravity is just one factor that sends the Nooksack north. Human-created infrastructure like the Everson bridge constrains the Nooksack and also plays a key role in forcing water into areas where gravity takes it north, rather than west. And then there are the politics of the situation.

Many acknowledge that the number of voters in different areas that the Nooksack floods also plays a key role.

The committee that voted not to consider stopping the overflow to Canada was designed to be a democratic way to decide what to do about the Nooksack. To this day, it continues to be the chief decision-making body. With representatives appointed to represent different affected areas, the committee continues to be the way the Americans try to ensure decisions reflect the public’s interest.

But because the river runs entirely through the United States, the committee has no representatives of Canadian communities in the Nooksack’s path. Abbotsford, of course, has a population to rival Bellingham—it just has no power. So political calculations tend to reflect voter counts along the United States portion of the Nooksack’s floodplain, not the entirety of the river’s flood area. Canadians—commuters, residents, and Sumas First Nation residents—can only watch.

“The long-standing political stature is that Everson, Nooksack, and Sumas don’t have the votes, whereas Ferndale and Lynden do. So they stay dry. Everson gets wet,” Hoekema said.

Whatcom County councillor Ben Elenbaas told The Current that the lack of voting power of Everson and the rural overflow areas impacts which way the Nooksack flooded last year, and where it will go in the future.

”If that would have happened in the City of Bellingham, let me tell you, we would see some different action than we’re seeing right now,” he said.

Allies and sediment

The Nooksack River carries large amounts of sediment and changes course frequently. The above changes took place along one stretch of the Nooksack in less than a decade. 📷 Google Earth
The Nooksack River carries large amounts of sediment and changes course frequently. The above changes took place along one stretch of the Nooksack in less than a decade. 📷 Google Earth

Elenbaas, the county councilor, is not an obvious ally for Canadians agitating to stop the Nooksack from flooding north.

Elenbaas is not only a local Whatcom County politician, he has a personal stake in the Nooksack’s future. Elenbaas is a farmer whose property sits within the floodplain downstream from Everson. When the Nooksack rises, as it now does too regularly for his liking, Elenbaas’s fields fill with water and he can’t plant his crops.

Given the impact on his land, one might expect him to balk at any proposal that would send even more water his way.

But in Whatcom County meetings, Elenbaas is one of the rare voices suggesting that reducing or eliminating flooding north of Everson might be worth the trouble, even if it has implications in his neck of the woods.

“I would rather have water in my field than in people’s houses,” he told The Current recently.

It was Elenbaas who expressed surprise at a June meeting when a Whatcom County river and flood engineer declared that a “conscious decision” was made two decades earlier to allow the river to keep flooding into Canada by not building a dike.

“I have a hard time believing Everson, the City of Sumas, and Abbotsford would have been too on board with that,” Elenbaas said. (The record of the decision was the 1999 plan itself.)

The Whatcom County flood planning process remains ongoing, but Elenbaas said the general outcome of that process has largely been decided. The county itself admits that it won’t consider trying to stop water from escaping the river and flooding north.

But a major problem for Canada is that, perhaps because they sense they are outnumbered, its potential allies south of the border have rarely pushed loudly for an Everson dike. Instead, the prime flood management solution pitched by Elenbaas and others in Sumas and Everson is not a new dike, but the removal of sediment along the Nooksack.

No Washington river deposits more sediment in the Pacific than the Nooksack. The river’s origins in Mt. Baker means it carries huge amounts of silt, sand, and gravel.

As the river slows, it deposits that sediment. A river naturally moves left and right around its sediment depositions, trying to find the path of least resistance and cutting new channels over time. The presence of humans encumbers that process and shifts it. But the sediment still has to go somewhere.

Through most of the 1900s, the river was dredged. But the practice fizzled out as evidence mounted that doing so harmed fish.

In recent years, data does suggest that the elevation of the bottom of the river has risen considerably. Logic and science suggests that more sediment on the river bottom increases the height of the Nooksack and thus its propensity to flood.

Elenbaas says that reducing the sediment in ditches, drainage canals, and the river would make it more politically feasible to actually change the flow split and send more water downstream.

“My problem is that if you’re going to be directing water to certain places…we better be doing something to make sure that we get it out of there so that we can have productive farmland in the future.”

The Nooksack Indian Tribe, though, argues that dredging does very little to reduce the frequency of large floods. They point to the 1990 flood that occurred when gravel removal was widespread. The river’s large floods are so large, they say, that the actual amount of water capacity affected by dredging the river is negligible.

Because river channels are inevitably somewhat V-shaped, the top metre of a river contains far more water than the bottom. That’s especially true during a flood, and means that targeted dredging only does so much during a major flood.

Both the Nooksack and the Lummi Indian Tribes, as well as environmentalists have largely won the debate over dredging. Small-scale sediment removal still exists, but there are no plans for large-scale dredging. Officials also say there are important practical considerations: dredging one part of the river would be of little use without doing it along the entirety of the river’s course.

Nevertheless, the fight continues.

The prospect that flooding could be solved with dredging is extremely alluring for many south of the border. The smaller the flood, the larger effect sediment likely plays. And while Canada might be mostly concerned about the giant floods, local residents are as concerned about events like the 2020 Super Bowl Flood, which devastated Sumas, Wash., but barely touched Canada.

The sediment debate fits nicely into American politics, with environmentalist Democrats on one side and rural Republicans on the other. And unlike building a dike at Everson, removing gravel and silt doesn’t come with the nasty by-product of increasing floods elsewhere.

And so it along with a variety of Whatcom County-specific issues have consumed much of the energy and attention of potential Canadian allies who would also benefit from an elimination of the flow split. Canada is often an afterthought. NBC News published a long story in September about the issues facing Everson (nearly as long as this one) and Canada was mentioned just once.

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First steps on sediment removal

In September, Whatcom County unveiled plans to dredge a short side channel just upstream of the Everson bridge.

The channel used to be active, but has been filled by sediment in recent years. Whatcom County says that dredging it could keep more water in the Nooksack and reduce the scale of flood events to the north. The county says it would also have no detrimental environmental impact and could even provide more fish habitat.

But for Canadians, the plan’s simplicity and lack of controversy is a warning sign.

The water from the channel would return to the Nooksack’s channel prior to the Everson bridge, a key pinch point in the river’s flood defences. And while dredging the channel could reduce the frequency of small and moderate floods, the lack of downstream opposition suggests it has limited potential to mitigate the large floods that affect Canada.

It’s impossible to significantly reduce the water flowing north and not increase the amount flowing to the west. So if people to the west of Everson aren’t worried about more water coming their way because of the dredging, that suggests the new plans are unlikely to do much to reduce the river’s tendency to flood north.

The bridge over the Nooksack River at Everson causes floodwaters to back up and flow north toward Canada. 📷 Tyler Olsen
The bridge over the Nooksack River at Everson causes floodwaters to back up and flow north toward Canada. 📷 Tyler Olsen

America first

There are no villains in this story. And the Americans’ position on the Everson overflow is not intentionally hard-hearted.

The US management of the Nooksack has largely been a story of politicians and officials acting in the interest of the people who elected and appointed them to serve: Americans. The international border has left the Americans in the position to decide whether to consider a course of action that would help Canadians but potentially harm more of their own constituents. Unsurprisingly, they have taken the route of least resistance and decided to maintain the status quo.

The Canadian political response, meanwhile, has largely been a story of intelligence failures.

Here, we use “intelligence” in the spy sense. As water began pouring north last November, BC officials seemed almost wholly unaware that the Nooksack posed any danger whatsoever. Of those aware of the river, and even those aware of its politics, few seem to have understood the depth of opposition to stopping the river from flooding north.

Much of the research for these stories began more than a year ago as part of a story on Mt. Baker and the threat it posed to Canada. Despite Baker’s proximity to significant Canadian population centres, Canada has done remarkably little to prepare for an eruption. And it it can’t count on its neighbour to do its work for it: while the US have comprehensively analyzed Baker’s risk, their planning is focused on their own territory. Maps of likely routes for a lahar—a massive mudflow caused by volcanic eruptions and rapid melting—tend to stop right at the 49th Parallel.

Hazard maps for Mt. Baker do not include Canada, even though Sumas Prairie would likely be affected by a lahar. 📷 US Geological Survey
Hazard maps for Mt. Baker do not include Canada, even though Sumas Prairie would likely be affected by a lahar. 📷 US Geological Survey

“People tend to stop hazard maps at the border,” Canadian geologist Melanie Kelman said last year. “I’ve had people actually tell me they’ve looked at the Baker hazard map and Abbotsford doesn’t need to worry because it shows the lahar will stop at the border, which of course isn’t the case.”

Kelman said a transborder team would be needed to properly handle Mt. Baker’s threat.

“A volcano doesn’t care that there’s an international border there.”

Neither does the Nooksack River.

Like those for Mt. Baker, many US maps that depict the Nooksack’s floodplain also stop right at the 49th Parallel. And like with the volcano, BC and Canadian officials seem to have done little on their own to prepare for the river’s flooding. So when the first atmospheric river hit with full force on Sunday, Nov. 14, Canada was caught off guard.

That same day, at noon, residents in Sumas and Everson were filling sandbags, having been warned the previous day that a massive storm and devastating flood was on its way.

On Sunday, when the Nooksack topped its banks and water began heading toward the town, a warning siren in Sumas sounded. Many Abbotsford residents heard it. (The Current warned in its first news story that evening that the river had previously flooded parts of Sumas Prairie and had the potential to shut down Highway 1.)

BC officials met Monday morning, with rain still pouring down outside, to discuss the unfolding emergency. But Abbotsford MLA Bruce Banman said that when he raised the danger of the Nooksack and was met with “blank stares.” As water poured into Sumas Prairie all that day, motorists and commuters were given no warning that the highway could (and would) be closed later that evening.

Even the City of Abbotsford seemed caught off guard. Just two years prior, the municipality had devoted significant resources to figure out how to mitigate the river’s threat. Although officials quickly swung into gear once significant flooding occurred, Abbotsford residents were given no warning that water was on its way. A tacit cross-governmental admission of the failure can be seen in the response to a second wave of storms two weeks later. Before those floods hit, governments bombarded residents with warnings that another Nooksack flood may occur, with Environment Canada issuing an unprecedented ‘red alert.’ Highway 1 between Chilliwack and Abbotsford was also pre-emptively shut down to allow for the creation of a tiger dam.

That was the first intelligence failure. The second can be seen in Abbotsford’s otherwise prescient 2020 plan to address the Nooksack flooding threat.

Several years ago, Abbotsford had commissioned a study to analyze the Nooksack threat and options to reduce the costs of a future flood. When that study was completed in 2020, the engineering firm hired by the city came to what seemed like an obvious conclusion: the most cost-effective way to reduce the damage would be to stop a flood in the first place.

The study recognized the complexity and huge cost of any flood-prevention plan north of the border. So its chief recommendation was simple and cheap: “encourage” the Americans to complete a cost-benefit study to analyze the consequences of building a dike that would stop floodwaters from ever reaching Abbotsford. Council agreed.

(It should be noted: the study’s recommendation did not doom Sumas Prairie last year. None of the available options would have been finished in time to mitigate last November’s disaster. Only by starting the process far earlier could some of the damage have been lessened.)

The approach made logical sense. But it didn’t take into account how unwilling Whatcom County decisionmakers were to reduce flooding towards Canada. Abbotsford’s study made no mention of the views or opinions expressed in the Whatcom County plan made 20 years prior.

Outgoing Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun and others in the city simply weren’t aware of the scale and depth of the American resistance to a dike at Everson. Asked if the city should have known that Whatcom Country wouldn’t be receptive to Abbotsford’s pleas for a dike at Everson, he pointed out that a Whatcom County councillor—Elenbaas—was also surprised that the county had taken a formal position to allow flooding north.

The situation today

Fast forward past the flood and to today, there seems little hope for those who would like to see significantly less water flowing north next time the Nooksack floods.

Whatcom County says it is not considering building a dike to eliminate the flow of water north.

“At this time, eliminating the flow split is not being evaluated further as there are other strategies … that are better suited for this area and have broader support,” County executive Satpal Sidhu said in an email to The Current.

The 1999 flood plan suggested that any expert analysis would actually be of limited value, given three key questions: 1) whether there was a “policy challenge” in reducing the flood risk in “high-risk areas” along the Everson corridor; 2) whether “it is appropriate to take any steps to artificially change the flow split at Everson, without mitigating negative impacts on property owners along one flow path or the other; and 3) whether changing the flow split would put the county in legal jeopardy.

The questions are the reason the decision is a political one, the plan said. And Sidhu, in his email to The Current, says the three questions remain relevant today.

But while the third question is straightforward and clear, the first two have obvious holes.

The first question, about the morality of protecting those living in flood-prone areas, applies to any flood protection project in the world, including those elsewhere along the Nooksack where the county has done work.

The second question, about the consequences of a dike if nothing is done elsewhere, is likely irrelevant since even Canadians acknowledge that an Everson dike would need to be accompanied by comprehensive flood improvements downstream.

As for Satpal’s assertion that other strategies are “better suited” for the region and enjoy “broader support,” well, that depends on one’s perspective. What is better-suited for Whatcom County is not the case for Sumas Prairie and vice versa.

“I think people think that they’re taking Canada into account, but I think what we’re seeing on the ground is [the planning] doesn’t,” Elenbaas told The Current.

The Americans are in a difficult spot. They can control which way the river goes when it floods. And they are “representatives” specifically appointed to decisionmaking bodies to represent the residents of their own communities. One can understand why those individuals would be wary of green-lighting changes that could negatively impact significant numbers of their own constituents for the benefit of people elsewhere. Even if there is a net benefit, those representatives are supposed to look after their own neighbours interest.

Canadian politicians, at least in public, have done little to pressure the Americans to reconsider their stance on a dike at Everson or provide other incentives that could change the calculation. Instead, most seem to have accepted the Amercians’ position, and their interpretation of the underlying facts.

Earlier this month, reporter Shannon Waters asked BC Premier John Horgan on behalf of The Current about the Nooksack at a recent press conference. Horgan suggested a flood mitigation plan that would have consequences in Washington State is not desirable.

“To say ‘Let’s just dike the Nooksack here to prevent water from overflowing into Sumas Prairie at extraordinary high water times’ will have knock-on effects down the road,” Horgan said. He praised Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun and said the next council “will have the same focus, which is to protect the territory that they’re responsible for, but in a way that does not have knock-on effects in Washington State.”

Horgan added that it’s possible that Canada could provide money for floodwork in the United States, while the Americans could do the same for necessary improvements north of the border. But any plan that doesn’t have knock-on effects in Washington State is a plan that accepts that Canada will remain a destination for large amounts of Nooksack water.

Nevertheless, Horgan says he is optimistic, and that collaboration is possible, pointing to the Columbia River Treaty and co-operation regarding the Skagit River.

(One potential factor in any cost-benefit analysis and negotiation is the fact that the huge scale of Nooksack damages in Canada are not wholly the result of American engineering or even natural forces. The century-old decision to drain Sumas Lake and settle on its lake-bottom is one reason last year’s flood was so costly.)

But there are other worrying signs about the speed of that process, and historical reasons to doubt whether good intentions will actually produce good outcomes.

After the 1990 flood, governments on both sides of the border convened an “international task force” to figure out what to do with the Nooksack. By 2019, the task force hadn’t met for seven years. Last year’s flood proved its failure and sounded its death knell.

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun shows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a map of the Nooksack overflow during a November visit by Trudeau. 📷 Tyler Olsen
Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun shows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a map of the Nooksack overflow during a November visit by Trudeau. 📷 Tyler Olsen

Following the disaster, the Washington and BC governments proudly announced a new plan to build a sustained and ongoing “transboundary initiative” to deal with the river. It was, essentially, an announcement that the two governments would hold meetings to decide who would get invited to future meetings. But at least, the work would be quick: the release promised to announce details in spring 2022.

Horgan has designated Port Moody-Coquitlam MLA—Rick Glumac—to take part in a series of meetings. But the two governments have yet to actually form a body with any power to make decisions about the river. The two sides are still talking about talking, and despite promising details in the spring, it’s now fall and nothing has been announced.

The meetings that have taken place suggest a disconnect between officials in Abbotsford and Sumas Prairie.

In July, a Canadian delegation travelled to the Nooksack to see the troublesome river firsthand. The delegation included Glumac, provincial flood officials, Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun and Sema:th First Nation councillor Chris Silver; on the other side of the table was a host of Americans, including Whatcom County’s flood chief Paula Harris.

According to Braun, at the July meeting, Whatcom County officials spoke approvingly of the speed of Abbotsford’s work to repair the damage from November and come up with a new, locally-focused protection plan. Braun said the Americans said they would be looking to integrate their floodway work into the Canadian plan.

A group of Americans visited Abbotsford in late September to inspect local infrastructure. The plan is now to build a joint floodway that will try to convey floodwaters from the Nooksack across the border and through Sumas Prairie while causing as little damage as possible. New dikes will create a floodway. Owners of property in that area may be bought out, and new construction prohibited, though farming can continue.

The Canadian flood zone would connect to a similar floodway in Whatcom County. There property owners are already being bought out, and homes are being raised for when the water returns.

Abbotsford says creating a Canadian floodway—including a new pump station to move the water into the Fraser River—is likely to cost billions. Most of that money is likely to come from the federal and provincial governments, and taxpayers from coast-to-coast.

Braun said that during the July meeting in Whatcom County, he pointed out that the Canadian plans were a response to the work the Americans were doing (and not doing).

“I said once we found out what you were doing on this side of the border, we designed our plan to fit into your floodway,” Braun recounted to The Current. He continued: “Don’t make this sound like the Canadians are now championing a floodway.

“We would much prefer you just build some levees and keep your water on the US side.”


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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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