The state of the prairie, two years after

Why the future of large-scale flood protections in Sumas Prairie remains uncertain

This is the third story in a three-part series. You can read the first part, on the improved protection of the prairie, here. You can read the second part, on the vulnerabilities that remain, here. Members can read all three stories as a single feature. Become a member and support our journalism for just $2/week here.

Through a combination of temporary and small-scale improvements and better awareness of the danger posed by the Nooksack, Sumas Prairie is better protected from flooding today than in 2021.

At the same time, the area remains incredibly vulnerable and the improvements made so far have been modest and incremental.

Those two, somewhat contradictory, facts are acknowledged by local officials and governmental leaders. Over the last two years, Abbotsford has done much of the short-term, small-scale work that is possible in a couple years with limited budgets.

But true protection will take billions of dollars and help from all levels of government.

It will require residents and owners of some land on Sumas Prairie to reconsider their future. The floodways mapped out by the City of Abbotsford would likely result in limits being placed on building activity within their borders. Existing structures could remain, but new builds could be limited or—if done like in the United States—be required to be constructed on raised ground or platforms.

The future also requires rethinking how humans co-exist with floodwaters.

On Tuesday, we looked at the reasons Sumas Prairie is more prepared for a Nooksack River flood than in 2021. Yesterday, we examined the massive vulnerabilities that remain. Today, we consider the implications of a changing climate and the political obstacles to safeguarding the prairie.

This work would not be possible without the support of The Current’s Insider members. Insider Members can read the three stories as a single comprehensive piece. Just check your newsletter for the member-specific link. You can become a member for just $2/week. New members will find the link in your welcome email.

Next week we will look at other places that were affected by 2021’s atmospheric rivers, including Hope, Clayburn Village, and the Fraser Canyon.

Complex task. Complex solutions.

While some have called for the resurrection of Sumas Lake and the undoing of all the area’s flood protections, Abbotsford has balked at that, pointing to the need to protect existing residents, farms, and infrastructure. Semá:th First Nation Chief Dalton Silver has also struck a conciliatory tone. Rather than calling for the restoration of the lake, he has endorsed the need for a more holistic vision of how water can be accommodated within the valley. Those ideas dovetail with current thinking on the usefulness of riparian areas and wetlands as areas that can provide flood storage and protection when the water rises.

Undertaking such strategies will be a complex task. The value of Sumas Prairie’s prime farmland incentivizes its use for agriculture, rather than as a tool to mitigate floods and improve the environment. Changing that dynamic will require hard conversations and, likely, considerable government money to make current landowners whole.

Underlying all the potential future flood mitigation work are agreements signed by local governments aimed at providing a framework to make decisions about the future of the region. There’s one agreement within Canada that includes the province, three local First Nations, and the cities of Abbotsford and Chilliwack. There’s another international agreement that includes those parties, minus Chilliwack and plus Whatcom County, Washington State, and two American First Nation governments. Beyond laying the groundwork for discussions and talking, it’s unclear just how much of a role either framework will play.

Within Canada, the frameworks are likely to be most immediately concerned about incorporating feedback and thoughts from the three First Nations into flood flood mitigation projects. Those projects will cost hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, and provincial and federal politicians will want them to be good-news stories emblematic of co-operation and not a public and expensive repeat of the draining of Sumas Lake, when politicians acted against the wishes of local Indigenous communities.

The international agreement framework, meanwhile, is designed to lay out a forum for parties to co-operate and share information. But it’s unclear how or whether it’s possible to reconcile the conflicting interests of residents in each country. There are few projects that could mitigate flooding into Canada that would not potentially keep more water in the United States. Thirty years ago, an international “task force” fizzled out and stopped meeting after it found itself unable to find a win-win solution. The new Nooksack initiative could meet a similar fate.

The history of Sumas Prairie and its complex water system makes its flood woes particularly difficult to solve. 📷 Tyler Olsen

Striking a balance

The current state of flood protections puts politicians, governments, and leaders in a delicate spot of trying to highlight the work they have done, while at the same time emphasizing the need to do far more.

In a written statement emailed to The Current, Abbotsford Mayor Ross Siemens said the city had been “working diligently over the last 21 months to reinforce our existing flood infrastructure and repair the city-owned sites damaged during the November 2021 flooding event.”

“As a result of this work, we feel we are in a better position than we were in 2021,” he continued. “However, there is still a lot of important work that needs to be done to ensure our families, farmers, businesses, and our provincial food system remains secure and that Highway 1, our national highway and province’s key transportation corridor is protected.”

Siemens added in his statement that, “As we approach the second anniversary of the historic flood, we want residents of Abbotsford to know that we won’t let this event become a distant memory.”

There’s no reason to doubt that local politicians want to avoid a repeat of 2021. But local leaders also don’t have the money or the power to actually stop a repeat of the 2021 flood from occurring. That will require the federal and provincial governments to ante up—and to continue doing so over the course of the decades it will take to truly protect Sumas Prairie from the Nooksack River.

It’s also important to understand that the flood risk is changing as the climate of the world and the region changes. Even slightly warmer temperatures can have huge impacts on the likelihood of natural disasters and extreme weather. BC’s wildfires are one example of the potential impact: the province is warming incrementally, but the intensity and size of its largest fires has dramatically increased in just a decade.

A similar pattern could follow in regards to the Nooksack and rainfall patterns on Mt. Baker.

The Nooksack’s greatest flood threat is, by far, in the winter. And it’s not hard to understand why: When November water falls as snow on the mountain, it tends to remain there until spring, when it melts gradually. But when precipitation falls as rain in large quantities over large parts of the mountain, that water can quickly fill the Nooksack.

Mt. Baker has a claim to being the snowiest places on earth (the place with the most snow on average is in Japan, though Baker has the record for the single snowiest winter). As more would-be snow falls as rain in November, the Nooksack’s flood threat will rise considerably.

Each year, the chance that a 2021-volume of water will try to make its way down the Nooksack increases. By just how much is hard to say. But scientists expect the frequency of high flow events to increase.

Similarly, research suggests that climate change—including more snow falling as rain in BC’s mountains—is likely to increase the frequency of November high water events on the Fraser River. That, in turn, could increase the urgency of a new pump station to replace the Barrowtown flood gates.

Progress has been made during the last two years. At the same time, there’s no doubt that more needs to be done.

On Sumas Prairie, there’s a long way to go before intention becomes protection.

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