Crossborder Nooksack teams have met 10 times since October

Experts and officials focusing on improving flood response co-ordination and data

This story first appeared in the May 17, 2024, edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.

Ten meetings in 10 months might not sound like a lot, but given recent history, the nine governments trying to prevent another devastating Nooksack River flood might as well be teenagers who can’t get off the phone with one another.

Whether they’ll ever be able to take things to the next level remains to be seen.

Note: Any discussion of the Nooksack flood risk requires understanding how and why it floods into Canada occasionally, and the difficulties of preventing such an occurrence. That’s incredibly complicated. We have written about it in length. You can find articles that give a detailed understanding of the challenges here and here and here.

Two days before the Nooksack River crossed into Canada and closed Highway 1, Sumas, Wash., residents started filling sandbags in preparation for a potential Nooksack River flood. It would take days before BC’s emergency planning officials woke up to the threat the American river posed to thousands of people in Abbotsford.

The resulting flood, and its devastation in Sumas Prairie, exposed the decades-long lack of international coordination around the Nooksack. It prompted BC and Washington to announce the creation of a “transboundary initiative” to address the flooding. But for more than a year after its announcement in the spring of 2023, nothing public happened as behind the scenes, government officials spent months working out who would get a seat at the table and what they would be assigned to talking about.

Finally, in October of 2023, it was announced an agreement had been signed to guide future discussions. (You can read that agreement here.) In addition to the state and province, the talks would include the City of Abbotsford, Whatcom County, the Sumas, Matsqui, and Leq’á:mel First Nations, the Nooksack Indian Tribe, and Lummi Nation. (Sumas, Matsqui, and Leq’á:mel are Canadian First Nations with traditional territory in the Nooksack River overflow plain; Nooksack and Lummi are their US counterparts south of the border. Nooksack’s territory is mostly in the foothills of Mt. Baker while Lummi is along the Puget Sound coast, near the mouth of the river.)

The new group is not the first attempt to find international solutions to the Nooksack’s flood threat. More than 30 years ago, in the wake of the 1990 flood, the two governments started talking about the river. But those discussions produced little of substance, in part because the goals of the Canadians—who want to stop floodwaters from crossing the border—conflicted with those of the Americans, who worried that keeping water in the United States would aggravate flooding for their residents. After a meeting in 2011, the task force failed to reconvene for nine years. (Abbotsford restarted discussions with its American counterparts in 2020, but those talks didn’t occur soon enough to prevent 2021’s disaster.)

The three tables

Nothing reveals the need to prepare for a devastating flood quite like a devastating flood.

Since the agreement was announced last October, three different groups have met a total of 10 times, according to provincial officials. Two more meetings are scheduled for early June. And “multiple subgroups” are also meeting to address unnamed specific issues. It’s a relatively high number of meetings for a group that includes nine different parties belonging to three levels of government spread across two countries.

Those 10 meetings have been held by three different “tables” created by the agreement: a technical table, a policy table, and a leadership table.

The technical table is working on the nuts and bolts of flood planning and responses. It has met four times, according to provincial officials. Last October, participants visited the Nooksack in Washington State; in April, they met in Bellingham for a workshop. A fifth meeting in June will include a visit to BC locations of note and interest—likely Barrowtown Pump Station and Sumas Prairie’s dikes.

The technical table has been tasked with creating a “shared understanding” of the river and its sediment situation, while understanding the current flood risk and prevention strategies in both countries. It’s also leading efforts to improve the ability to more accurately measure river flows and forecast floods in advance.

The policy table has met four times, most recently in early May. Participants are tasked with agreeing upon “international values and objectives for flood risk reduction strategies” and internationally co-ordinating “domestic decision-making processes.” In short, they seem to be trying to figure out what flood reduction efforts will satisfy all parties. For most rivers, that’s a challenge. For the Nooksack, it’s near impossible because while dikes can be built to reduce the amount of water flowing toward Canada, doing so would increase the amount of floodwater flowing into western Whatcom County.

Finally, the leadership table has met twice: first in October, when the agreement was announced, and a second time in January. Another meeting is set for early June at Lummi Nation in the US. The leaders are tasked with providing direction to, and oversight of, the other two tables, according to a BC spokesperson.

Although not mentioned by the spokesperson, the leaders are also the only ones with the ability to sign-off on deals that might be necessary to rebalance the risk-reward equation during major Nooksack floods. Canadian officials would like the US to keep more water on their side of the border. But US politicians have little reason to take such action independently. If any progress is made on that front, it will almost certainly have to involve Canadian politicians offering compensation or additional support to those south of the border.

Abbotsford had previously suggested a willingness to pay for a dike in the US to prevent water from heading north. That hasn’t worked. The leadership table (or side conversations) would be where any financial and political agreement could be arranged. It would also be the place where heated discussions would be held if Canadian politicians reconsider more provocative solutions to their Nooksack problems.

Canadian officials have occasionally floated the idea of building a massive dike along the 49th Parallel. Such a dike might be able to prevent a repeat of the 2021 disaster, but in blocking the water from flowing north, it would dramatically aggravate flooding in Sumas, Wash. and other southern communities. A border dike is the un-neighbourly solution to some of Canada’s issues. But while it could hypothetically prevent flooding, it’s hardly a silver bullet. It would be incredibly costly and likely require the demolition of some buildings and expropriation of many properties. It could also fail spectacularly if flooding was too severe and it was breached.

While today’s governments seem unlikely to take such action, the election of a populist government—be it provincially, federally, or in Abbotsford—could introduce politicians who are more willing to provoke their American neighbours. The Americans have previously acknowledge Canadian speculation about a border dike and suggested its possibility as one reason to try to help the Canadians, if they can.

But with the Americans mostly uninterested in reducing the flow of water to Canada, and the Canadians mostly accepting they can’t change that fact,, Nooksack discussions seem likely to be focusing on two main key goals.

The first, as noted in the BC government’s response to The Current, is improving the ability to predict how high the Nooksack will rise during and following storms and which communities are likely to be affected. Officials want better data on the river and more hydrometric information and gauges. That data also mustto be accompanied by an ongoing understanding of how the river shifts over time. (Gauges need to be calibrated to respond to its stretch of river getting wider or deeper.)

The province vaguely alluded to the other big task facing the parties—especially those at the technical table. Both Abbotsford and Whatcom County have created maps and plans for how the Sumas River valley could more-safely funnel water from the Nooksack, if and when it overflows its banks and heads north. Abbotsford wants to create a series of dikes and pump stations, while Whatcom County is buying out homes in certain areas to smooth the flow of water in a “floodway.” The discussions, whether at the table-level or by subgroups, are likely to involve trying to join those maps together in a way that moves floodwaters towards the Barrowtown floodgates (or new pump station) with as little damage as possible.

It could be decades until we know the fruits of this most-recent stab at international co-operation. Better co-ordination and information will help respond to future floods. Matching cross-border infrastructure could help smooth the movement of water from one river basin (and country) to the next.

But it could also be mostly window dressing. The biggest decisions—on funding more than $1 billion of flood-prevention infrastructure in Abbotsford or building dikes to prevent flooding in Washington State—still seem likely to occur at the whims of politicians in either country. And history has shown that just because a task force is created, doesn’t mean it will be able to prevent a future flood.

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