US floodway lays out route for floodwaters between Nooksack and Canadian border

‘This is what Canada is desperately afraid of,’ one US official warns as Whatcom County considers buying out property owners in floodway between the banks of the Nooksack and Sumas Prairie

By Tyler Olsen | January 25, 2022 |5:00 am

UPDATE: This story and headline have been updated to reflect that officials were discussing the modification, not the creation, of a designated floodway has historically existed.

The Nooksack River is “going to go where it’s going to go.” And when it floods again, much of it will likely go to Canada.

That was the view of Whatcom County officials earlier this month as they candidly discussed a possible plan to buyout properties between the Nooksack River and Canada within a “floodway” that channels water between the problematic watercourse and the international border. While a floodway has historically existed, the newly mapped floodway would be much larger.

The politicians suggested more should and will be done to try to prevent water from flooding at Everson, where much of November’s floodwaters originated. But the members of the county’s flood advisory committee largely agreed that some level of flooding was inevitable—and that completely stopping the Nooksack from flooding north had the potential to worsen flooding elsewhere in Whatcom County.

At the same time, members warned that the buyout plan was likely to stoke fears in Canada that the Americans might not be focused on stopping floodwaters from flowing across the border.

“This is exactly what Canada is desperately afraid of: that we’re going to make it easier for the water to get to Canada,” one representative warned.

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Floodway to Canada

As a general rule, the Washington state government won’t allow homes to be rebuilt in designated “floodways” unless those homes directly support agriculture. Such floodways are low-lying areas designated by the federal government and designed to allow floodwaters to move through them with minimal damage after they breach the banks of a river.

When most rivers flood, they fill nearby fields, swell side channels, or carve new corridors. Eventually, the water drains back into the main watercourse.

But the Nooksack is a unique river. When the Nooksack floods near Everson, its water leaves the Nooksack drainage basin entirely, spills into the Sumas River basin and flows downhill, north through Sumas, Wash., across the border and into Canada and Sumas Prairie. The Sumas River usually takes the water to the Fraser. But in extreme cases, as occurred in November, the Nooksack can send so much water north that it overtops or blows through dikes, and ends up refilling Sumas Lake.

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Need a refresher on the Nooksack’s unique geography—and threat? Check out these two in-depth Current stories on the history of Sumas Lake, and the volcano that feeds the Nooksack.

Sumas Lake, the Nooksack River, and the historic roots of a 21st Century disaster

The Volcano and the River

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On Jan. 13, elected representatives from across Whatcom County convened over Zoom to discuss what comes next after November’s devastating floods. The flooding that affected Canada was only part of the discussion. Although Canadians are familiar with the Sumas Prairie damage, the Nooksack also flooded properties and breached dikes all across Whatcom County.

The members of the Whatcom County Flood Control Zone Advisory Committee had been asked to give their thoughts on a plan to request federal funding to buy out homes and properties both along the Nooksack and within the flooding corridor between Everson and the Canadian border. That floodway runs through the towns of Everson and Sumas. It ends abruptly at the border, across which Canadian politicians have historically had different ideas about what should be done regarding the flooding near Everson.

Neither the advisory committee nor a subsequent meeting of another county flood management body objected to the plan.

While the Canadians would like the Americans to do everything they can to stop the Nooksack from flooding north, the Americans are cautious about stiffening protections near Everson because doing so could have major consequences for Americans further west on the river. Flooding into Canada acts as a release valve. Any water that spills into the Sumas River basin is water that won’t impact properties further downstream nor, importantly, lead to the closure of Interstate 5, one of the biggest consequences of Nooksack flooding.

The Great Awkward North

January’s meetings illustrated the dilemma facing the Americans—and the awkwardness that arises when Canada is mentioned.

After Paula Harris, Whatcom County’s river and flood manager, presented the buy-out plan and showed preliminary maps of a floodway heading due north, one of the committee members suggested Canadians might not be too keen on the idea.

“When you’re talking about the potential future floodway improvements between Everson and up through Sumas, you’re talking about removing structures,” Tom Brewster, an elected representative, said. “This is going to be a pretty problematic issue if we don’t have a plan and we’re perceived as making a highway through Sumas and straight into Abbotsford and into Lake Sumas.”

Harris responded: “Well, I mean, clearly we need to do what we need to do, well…”

Watch this portion of the meeting below.

After a moment searching for the right words to follow, she continued: “Like what we’ve been talking about this whole meeting, there’s going to be a combination of tools that were going to be needed to solve this problem. There’s just way, way, way too much water to put anywhere except—you know. It’s just a lot of water. Lake Sumas used to receive it all.”

The Canadians would like a levee built at Everson. And Harris said she and her colleagues will investigate that question.

“Why was there never a levee built? We’ve got levees everywhere else. Why hasn’t one ever been built at Everson? It’s something I’ve always wondered, and it could be because the river downstream is used to having that overflow. I don’t know. It’s something we’re going to have to explore.”

But although building a levee might solve Canada’s problem, Harris warned that simply raising the banks at Everson might only create more problems for those in Washington state.

“We know that if we cut off all the water that goes to Canada that we’re going to have downstream impacts. We’ve modelled that. We know it’s going to cause more overtopping [of dikes] and longer duration of I-5 [closures].”

In other words, if the water stopped flowing to Canada, it would flood other places in the US—unless major and costly infrastructure upgrades were made.

In the advisory committee meeting, and a second meeting last week, Harris showed preliminary mapping of the floodway. The maps are being created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and show the floodway going almost straight through Sumas. Last week, Harris remarked that she wished the town was placed elsewhere given the broad plain over which the water is expected to travel next time the Nooksack floods. While a floodway has historically existed, the newly mapped floodway will be much larger.

The floodway, outlined in yellow in the FEMA maps, ends abruptly at the 49th parallel.

Preliminary maps show a proposed floodway leading from the banks of the Nooksack River into Canada. 📷 Whatcom County
Preliminary maps show a proposed floodway leading from the Nooksack River into Canada. 📷 Whatcom County

Include Canada in plans, Everson mayor urges

Everson Mayor John Perry also pushed for officials to take the effects on Canada into consideration—and to use the consequences of a flood to rally a joint effort to limit flooding through his town and across the border.

“Abbotsford has to be part of the equation in this,” he said. “I know Sumas feels the same way as Abbotsford: that we’re sending all the water to them and they’ve sustained over a billion dollars of damage. So we have to consider the impacts of sending that much water through Everson, Nooksack, and Sumas and into Abbotsford.”

“I think that’s one of the biggest conversations we need to have: Is that the appropriate location for that much of the Nooksack overflow?”

Over the last century, Perry said water has been allowed to flow north because relatively few people lived in that direction.

“I think historically it was the lower impact for Whatcom County and that’s why it was the overflow: because less people lived here. But Abbotsford has grown. Abbotsford has 160-some-thousand people—Abbotsford’s a bigger city than Bellingham—and we’re sending our water there. As this becomes more of an international issue it’s going to change the scope of our focus and our conversations.”

But another rep, Jeff DeJong, said the geography of the area is hard to overcome.

“One thing that has to be kept in mind is that you’re not going to argue with the lay of the land,” DeJong said. “That’s not saying we don’t want to work really hard to mitigate the damages and lessen the ability of water to go that direction, but… water goes downhill and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it when it comes at that magnitude. So we’re going to try hard to keep it from going that way, but it’s going to go where it’s going to go.”

Throughout the meeting, members alluded to their own personal stakes when it came to deciding where the water went. At least two members, including DeJong, the chair of the group, operate farms west of Everson. Last November, DeJong told an Oregon newspaper his farm was surrounded by water but able to stay dry through the flood. Fellow committee member Ben Elenbaas said his farm would be affected if the Nooksack didn’t flood north.

“I don’t mind having more water come my way if we can get it out of there,” he said. But the current problem is that once the floodwaters accumulate on his land, they aren’t receding. “I’m to a point where I can’t even get a crop in.”

Others, like Perry, are affected when the river flows north. But the Everson mayor also suggested that the cost of the damages incurred in Abbotsford could and should change the calculation when it comes to the resources available to prevent flooding and tackle the problem in a comprehensive way.

“When you look at Everson, Nooksack, Sumas, maybe we have $35- to $50-million of damages in those communities, but then you pull in Abbotsford and we’ve got $1 billion or more in the agricultural industry,” he said. “If there’s that much loss, there’s that much incentive to come up with more positive solutions to this. So using Abbotsford and Canada as a partner in this to come up with additional solutions could bring additional funding to our region.”

‘Some bold moves’

Many Whatcom County officials and residents have focused their advocacy on calling for increased sediment removal from the river channel.

Perry alluded to that as well, noting that buying out homes, rather than rebuilding them and reducing the severity of flooding, could aggravate the ongoing housing shortage.

Harris, in her presentation, said the river saw significant gravel accumulation in the Everson area during November. (Until new research is conducted, all that gravel will make gauging river flows in the area difficult during any new flood, she said.) But there have also been warnings that removing gravel would only have a minor effect during large floods.

The committee ended up giving the thumbs up to the plan, though it was noted that the goal was to quickly allow the county to get funding to buy out property owners who are currently waiting to see if they will rebuild. DeJong said it didn’t also mean the county had abandoned trying to prevent future floods at Everson and into Sumas and Canada.

“As far as handling future flooding… those discussions are going to continue for a long, long time, hopefully sooner rather than later,” he said. “We’re going to come up with some big moves, some bold moves, that will [show] we’re trying we’re going to make this step as a preventive measure to keep water from coming out of the Everson overflow.”

But everything will cost money.

The buyouts are only part of the equation, Perry reiterated. And the complexity of the issue demands analysis. And that will demand experts, and the money to pay them. Where that cash will come from will be one of the first (multi-)million-dollar questions to be answered.

“If we change something in one area, we affect another area,” he said. “We’ve got to do a comprehensive look at the river from the mouth of it up to where it starts. And I don’t think we have the staffing to adequately address it at this point or the dollars for it.”

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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