Two years after the storm: Rural communities are still vulnerable
Despite two years of emergency repairs and improvements, small Fraser Valley communities remain vulnerable to landslides and flooding
At any other time, tiny Clayburn Village, on Matsqui Prairie, would be an unlikely place to find the Prime Minister of Canada shaking hands with dozens of members of the Canadian military.
But November 2021 wasn’t a normal time for Clayburn, nor for several other small Fraser Valley communities faced with a major disaster.
Today, two years after the floods and landslides of that November, we’re looking at what has taken place in Clayburn Village, Hope, and the Fraser Valley’s rural areas to fix the damage caused in 2021 and prepare for the next atmospheric river.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited flood protection works in Clayburn Village in 2021. 📷️ Tyler Olsen
Clayburn, a small community on the north end of Abbotsford, is no stranger to high water. The community—and the brick plant around which it was based—was built a century ago along Clayburn Creek, which drains much of Sumas Mountain.
During heavy rain events—and the November 2021 storm was that and more—water funnels off the slopes of Sumas Mountain and into Clayburn Creek. The water flows through a narrow gully before spilling onto Matsqui Prairie at the bottom of the hill—right at Clayburn Village.
In 2021, the creek’s relatively shallow banks were insufficient to contain the immense amounts of water that poured off the mountain and onto the prairie.
The first storm created a large lake across a huge area of land surrounding Clayburn village. And although avoiding such flooding may have been impossible, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing humans could do to reduce the flood risk in the area.
In the weeks after the first storm, members of the Canadian military constructed large sandbag berms in advance of another series of forecast atmospheric rivers bearing down on the province. When those hit, the newly reinforced banks of Clayburn Creek held, saving properties from further damage.
The work demonstrated the value of pre-planning and preparatory work. Today, many of the sandbags remain, even if the military does not.
Now, the onus is on Abbotsford and the provincial government to better protect the community on a permanent basis.
Eight years before the 2021 floods, Abbotsford signed off on new flood protection work to protect the Clayburn community. But those improvements, which cost nearly $4 million, were only expected to protect against a one-in-10-year event—a relatively common, moderate-sized flood.
The 2021 event was obviously much more severe, and protecting against a repeat will take more money, time, and effort.
Over the last two years, the Clayburn Creek channel has been widened and deepened, with sediment traps upgraded to provide more capacity for water during future events. Some critical repairs were initially set to be completed this year, but the work is still ongoing, with the city reporting that “upper sections of the work are to be reconstructed by the province.” That work is anticipated to take place next August and September.
The city, meanwhile, is working on a long-term flood mitigation plan for the area, with money provided by the province. While some floods might be unavoidable, the goal is to find a way to route water around the historic village area to protect it against future floods.
Sediment has been removed from under the Old Clayburn Road bridge and from the Wright Street sediment trap. The larger flood mitigation plan will need to concern itself not just with the area immediately surrounding Clayburn village, but elsewhere on Matsqui Prairie—and on the hillside above. Water has to go somewhere, and reducing flooding in the Clayburn area necessitates conveying water to another destination, be it detention storage areas or its eventual destination in the Fraser River.
Further complicating the challenge is that huge chunks of the Clayburn Creek watershed are now anticipated to be developed over the coming years as outlined in the McKee Peak neighbourhood plan. While those developments will include plans for stormwater management, the addition of impermeable surfaces like roads and building foundations will inevitably mean that less water is soaked up by the ground (and by plants) and more ends up in Clayburn Creek.
The 2012 report on Clayburn Creek emphasizes that point. That report notes that the watershed of Clayburn Creek was, at the time, 12% impervious. That figure was expected to more than double by the time the watershed is fully developed.
In other words, as time passes and more homes are built, Clayburn Creek will need to be able to handle more and more water each year.
Elsewhere in Abbotsford, city crews have been working to address other areas that saw landslides two years ago. Repairs are complete on a landslide location at Cranberry Court and on Sumas Mountain Road. On Old Yale Road, on Majuba Hill, repairs have been redesigned to include a full retaining wall. Design work is still being done to address five other landslides in the the Sumas Mountain area.
Near Mission, dozens of homes along and near Hatzic Lake were inundated during the 2021 flooding.
The lake sits on a floodplain along the Fraser River. During and after the 2021 storm, water backed up behind culverts and pump stations, causing the lake’s level to rise and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents.
Like those in Clayburn Village, there was nothing new about the 2021 flood, aside from its severity and distance in time from past events. Just the previous year, officials had tabled an extensive management plan that suggested a variety of ways to improve flood protections in the area.
The Hatzic problem is vastly more complicated than that facing Clayburn, owing in part to the tangle of governments responsible for the area. The province governs the lake; the federal government governs and regulates the area’s myriad of environmental aspects; properties on the west side of the lake are governed by the City of Mission, those on Hatzic island on the east side are governed by the Fraser Valley Regional District; and the lake drains beneath a Highway 7 bridge (provincial jurisdiction) and through three problematic culverts beneath a Canadian Pacific Railway line (railroads are governed by federal laws).
An in-depth story by the Mission Record examined the tangle of challenges earlier this year.
“The way the needs of Hatzic Lake are being managed right now is just not a cohesive, effective way to create solutions,” Hatzic Watershed Society’s Lori Bartsch told the paper.
The Fraser Valley Regional District is currently undertaking sediment management work and hydrological modelling for the Hatzic Valley. But sediment management, by definition, only has temporary benefits. Modelling, meanwhile, will only help further explain the problem. It won’t fix it.
A more permanent solution will require more modern infrastructure to better manage lake levels and prevent future flooding. It will also require a solution to the jurisdictional obstacles that have thus far hobbled progress.
Like elsewhere in the Fraser Valley, officials and locals have warned that regional districts and local governments don’t have the money or resources to undertake complex and expensive flood protection projects. The province has promised to overhaul how it funds and manages flood protections, but those changes have yet to be unveiled. Until that happens, Hatzic residents will remain vulnerable.
Hope council was warned last year that a flood much larger than that which occurred in 2021 is possible—and would do substantial damage to the town centre. 📷 District of Hope
Hope was severely impacted by the Coquihalla River’s 2021 rise in several areas: near Fraser Canyon Hospital; along the Glenhalla Dike protecting a subdivision at the southeast end of town; and at the Hope Golf Club, where the river tore through several fairways creating significant damage. A subsequent engineer’s report has revealed even more vulnerabilities.
At Fraser Canyon Hospital, the raging Coquihalla started eating into the banks of the river and threatening the key facility. Immediately after the atmospheric river, that bank was shored up. Rip rap was also placed on the side of the river to redirect the river’s flow.
That work was done with funding from Emergency Management BC because it was considered to be an emergency. But Hope has had to wait for help to get money for other projects.
Meanwhile, at the Hope Golf Club, volunteers have spent two years picking up the pieces.
The golf club, which sits on Crown land, had seen occasional flooding—including one significant event in 1967 that led to the creation of a dike across the property. But the 2021 event was of a different scale altogether. The Coquihalla crashed through the property, destroying fairways and leaving the course unrecognizable. Huge expanses of sand were dumped on the property as the river slowed as it neared the Fraser River.
Its restoration wasn’t viewed as a priority by the province, Hope’s Chief Administrative Officer John Fortolotczky wrote in an email, but repairs were undertaken largely by volunteers with money fundraised from the public. Local companies also chipped in: last August Emil Anderson dumped a load of road millings on the course to be used to maintain new cart paths.
The course still opened last spring with a modified hole arrangement, and this year it’s in even better shape. But its undiked location at the mouth of the Coquihalla continues to leave it vulnerable to future flood events.
Upstream and elsewhere, the future of more than golf holes are at stake. The 2021 flood damaged a key dike protecting a small subdivision on Robertson Crescent, a small neighbourhood squeezed between the river and Old Hope Princeton Way.
The river nearly overtopped the dike and left a line of debris visible on its crest. Earlier this spring, the barrier was repaired with funding from the Disaster Financial Assistance Program.
Fortolozcky wrote in an email that “we are definitely more prepared for floods today versus 2021.”
But the town remains vulnerable. Last year, it identified $11 million worth of work that it said is essential to provide long-term protection for Hope. The district is now working with the Fraser Basin Council to update its flood maps and identify hazards threatening the town. It’s also taking part in a “Flood Table” initiative examining hazards across the lower Coquihalla watershed.
Those ongoing exercises are likely to lead to a list of projects that should be completed to better protect the town. When they actually get done is another question.
Last year, council heard that the 2021 flood may have been spectacular and damaging, but much worse is possible. A one-in-200-year flood—the scale of event the province says communities should protect against—could see twice as much water making its way down the Coquihalla.
Such an event could see the Coquihalla overtop a dike at the south end of town and send water barrelling straight through the town’s commercial and industrial heart en route to the Fraser.
Shoring up the river bank near Fraser Canyon Hospital will help mitigate the chances of such an event, but larger scale efforts will be needed to truly protect Hope.
The report delivered to Hope council last year suggested a range of improvements, including replacing the bridge that crosses the river to the golf club, creating a flood barrier along Old Hope Princeton Way, shoring up the Gardener Drive riverbank, and adding a flood channel near Kawkawa Lake Road Bridge.
The Othello Tunnels area in Hope, shown here from above, was hit hard during the 2021 floods. 📷️ Peregrine Aerial Surveys.
Harrison, Chilliwack River Valley, Othello, and elsewhere
The 2021 event was so significant, in part, because so many different geologic events occurred concurrently across a large region. Across the Fraser Valley, there were dozens of landslides that impacted homes, roads, and other structures and infrastructure.
The number of events combined to turn individual localized emergencies into a larger, mass-disaster. It also significantly complicated the response—and attempts to keep track of what has been done to fix or alleviate issues two years later.
North of Harrison Hot Springs, a rockslide closed Rockwell Drive, the key road (technically a provincial highway) connecting homes on the eastern side of Harrison Lake (and campsites at Sasquatch Provincial Park) with Harrison Hot Springs and the rest of the Fraser Valley. It wasn’t the first washout that had closed the road.
The province has completed work to address some concerns over the last year, but those are unlikely to provide a permanent solution. Last year, Fleming wrote an email to the District of Kent outlining the complexity of stopping washouts on a permanent basis.
“During periods of significant rain, the water courses in the area can jump their banks and carve new channels, depositing sediment and blocking draining in new, unpredictable locations. As a result, washouts do not always occur in the same places, complicating our efforts to prevent them,” Fleming wrote, as detailed in the Agassiz-Harrison Observer.
The road’s location, squashed between a steep mountainside and Harrison Lake, also puts limits on whether any sort of permanent solution is even possible.
As for Harrison Hot Springs as a whole, recent fires and floods hammered home the lack of a second emergency evacuation route. Harrison’s council has stepped up calls for the province to create a backup emergency route through Sasquatch Provincial Park. But two decades after it was first proposed, actually making such a route happen still requires the plans to navigate a tangle of provincial bureaucracy and approvals. (And may require Harrison Hot Springs council to itself sort out its severe governance issues.)
Elsewhere across the valley, the consequences of landslides and floods that impacted small neighbourhoods or individual property owners continue to be felt.
On Othello Road just north of Hope, several homes were wiped away by the Coquihalla River—despite warnings that action could have prevented it from happening.
Over the last two years officials have placed rip rap on Othello Road to prevent further erosion, but the Othello Tunnels—a key Hope tourist attraction—remain closed. The tunnels are expected to reopen next year once engineering work is completed in 30 different places. Meanwhile, the homes lost are long gone.
The Fraser Valley Regional District is in charge of handling preventative work across the region’s rural communities.
Projects completed since 201 include:
Lorenzetta Creek (near Laidlaw)
Blue Creek (Columbia Valley)
Frosst Creek (Lindell Beach)
Belgrove Creek (Columbia Valley)
Cascade Creek (Chilliwack River Valley)
Debris management at
Guy Creek Basin (Baker Trails)
Dike protection and bank protection
Chilliwack River - O’ Byrne Road (Slesse Park)
Chilliwack River - Osborne Road (near Bell acres)
A slew of reports, studies, and plans have also either been completed or are in the works. Those include:
A design to stabilize the dike at Wilson Road in the Chilliwack River Valley,
New evacuation guides for electoral areas E and H (you can read our story on Cultus Lake’s evacuation guide here)
GeoHazard Mapping around Brooks & Ohman Road in Lake Errock
In-progress updates to the FVRD’s emergency management plan and hazard report, and a drainage study at Popkum West.
Many residents, however, continue to struggle to move past the 2021 disaster.
In the Chilliwack River Valley, landslides claimed six homes, but residents say they have been left in limbo. Other stories abound across the region. Earlier this fall, BC’s ombudsperson lambasted the provincial government for bureaucratic failings that have left people still waiting to learn if they’ll be compensated and if so, in what form.
Two years after one of the biggest disasters to ever hit the Fraser Valley or Canada, there’s still a lot of work to do.