Sumas Lake return shouldn’t come over objections of residents: Sema:th chief

"We don’t want to do it in such a way that would force people from their homes," Semá:th First Nation Chief Dalton Silver told The Current. Silver, though, thinks there may be support for at least a partial restoration of Sumas Prairie.

By Tyler Olsen | December 2, 2022 |5:00 am

If Sumas Lake is to be restored in part or whole, as some have called for, residents who have settled on its lakebed need to be on board, Semá:th First Nation Chief Dalton Silver says.

Last year’s storms brought renewed attention to the draining of the lake in the early 1920s. The lake had been a key source of food and at the centre of Stó:lō culture. It was drained against the objections of local Indigenous communities.

The loss of what locals called Semá:th Xo:tsa had a lasting impact on those communities. The former lakebed, meanwhile, was settled and became some of BC’s most productive farmland.

In the wake of last year’s floods, there have been calls to allow the lake to return to Sumas Prairie. Silver, though, is cautious about calling for changes that could swamp land now home to thousands of people.

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A future worth considering

It’s worth thinking hard about the future of Sumas Prairie and the economic and environmental costs of fighting geography and Mother Nature, Silver told The Current.

Silver spoke to The Current following a press event marking the release of a study showing the environmental degradation of Sumas Prairie’s waterways. The lead author of that study, Dr. Peter Ross, suggested that changes to improve the size and scale of riparian areas could be a good first step. Doing so could improve the habitat for plants, animals, and fish that still live in the region and which were so plentiful before the lake was drained, Ross said.

Silver echoed Ross. He said the study, along with last year’s flood, should underscore the unnatural state of Sumas Prairie and the consequences of human activity in the area, Silver said. And those consequences, he said, suggest people need to take a new approach to the land on Sumas Prairie.

His First Nation has previously sought compensation for the loss of the lake. Semá:th Xo:tsa was more than a local waterbody and habitat for wildlife and fish. It was also occasionally a home, with Stó:lō people living in homes on stilts at certain times of the year.

Given the flooding difficulties and that history, some have called for the wholesale return of Semá:th Xo:tsa/Sumas Lake.

But the lakebed is now home to thousands of people, and Silver repeated several times that he doesn’t want to see any residents forced from their properties.

The revival of Sumas Lake, he said, “is something that our people have talked about and our fishery organizations have talked about.”

“It’s something that may be possible,” he continued, “but it’s something that everyone would have to buy into.”

That view, he said, is linked to the history of Indigenous people across the Fraser Valley and Canada.

“I don’t have much of an appetite for [displacing people]. We know how that goes. We know how that feels as Indigenous people,” he said. “We’re still recovering from it more than a century later.”

The Semá:th Xo:tsa lakebed sits around sea level: far lower than surrounding streams and rivers. It is kept dry by an extensive diking system and massive pumps. And its re-emergence during last year’s floods demonstrated the challenges and costs in keeping a man-made prairie dry.

Silver said last year’s floods have led some residents to reconsider their plans for their land and homes.

“I know there are some farmers who are looking at changing what they are doing now because of the possibilities of that happening again in the future,” he said. “I think we really have to weigh all the options and look at what the circumstances are and what the outcomes could be.”

Barrowtown Pump Station and its predecessor were built to keep Sumas Lake from reforming. But last year's flooding has cast a new light on a century efforts to drain the prairie. 📷 Tyler Olsen
Barrowtown Pump Station and its predecessor were built to keep Sumas Lake from reforming. But last year’s flooding has cast a new light on a century of efforts to drain the prairie. 📷 Tyler Olsen

He pointed to the high costs of improving pump stations and diking systems. One recent study, undertaken in conjunction with Semá:th First Nation councillor Murray Ned, suggested buying out the land would cost around $3 billion—a huge sum, but potentially less than the cost of keeping the area dry.

Silver suggested governments and locals need to better understand the strength of the natural forces that affect the land and the lives that live upon it.

“The power of water is something that people don’t really understand.”

And the resurrection of Sumas Lake, Silver said, “is something, from our perspective, that Mother Nature is attempting on its own.”

Silver would like to explore the possibility of creating more wetlands, riparian buffer areas, and even maybe something larger.

“If it can’t be done wholly, maybe it can be done partially,” he said.

Sumas Prairie has endured a century of human-focused activity and development, and Silver hopes future decisions can start to push the needle in the other direction.

But he stressed that the prairie’s future must be built on consensus.

“I worked with BC First Nations on land claims and my grandfather did as well,” he said. “We don’t want to do it in such a way that would force people from their homes. My grandfather said, ‘We won’t do that because we know how that feels.’”

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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