British Columbia·Metro Matters

City of Merritt hopes to avoid 3rd straight season of flooding

Flood mitigation was the top priority in Linda Brown's platform when she ran for mayor of Merritt in October, defeating incumbent Neil Menard.

Communities affected by flood and wildfire damage want to do more mitigation but have limited dollars

Flooding in Merritt in 2017, the first of two consecutive years the city suffered damage from overflowing rivers. (Courtesy of Eleanor Ware)

It might be the weekend before Christmas but some people in Merritt, B.C., are already thinking about May. 

That is the month when, for the last two years in a row, water has broken over the Nicola Lake dam causing widespread flooding.

In the heart of the Nicola Valley, where the weather heats up quickly in April and May, residents worry the flooding season will only get worse unless mitigation efforts become a greater priority. 

"We're experiencing more extreme events," said Nic Beers, a Merritt resident of over 50 years who founded an advocacy committee earlier this year. 

"We've got serious problems here, and they're only going to get worse and until we find the resources to start addressing [them]." 

Flooding was extensive throughout the Nicola Valley in 2018. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)
 

New mayor, same funding problem

Flood mitigation was the top priority in Linda Brown's platform when she ran for mayor of Merritt —​ located about an hour's drive south of Kamloops — in October, defeating incumbent Neil Menard.

"I think a lot of the public felt that there wasn't enough being done about flooding mitigation," Brown said, noting staff was "stretched to the max."

"They did everything they possibly could do. Was it enough? Was it early enough? All those questions are still up in the air."

Merritt mayor Linda Brown says the city is being proactive, but the provincial government's fund for flood mitigation only covers $750,000 of the needed $2 million in upgrades. (City of Merritt)

Brown is awaiting the results of a roundtable taking place in January before making firm commitments. But like any mid-sized B.C. municipality hoping to improve flood and wildfire prevention efforts, it's at the mercy of a limited local tax base and limited provincial funding. 

"We're kind of stretched right now as to where we need to look and what can we do this to get things going ... the more we think about it, the closer the flooding season is coming upon us," she said. 

A new provincial program administered by the Union of BC Municipalities — the Community Emergency Preparedness Fund — provides up to $750,000 to municipalities hoping to take action before disaster hits. 

 "We're all realizing the unprecedented nature of wildfires and floods across the province," said UBCM president Arjun Singh.

"We get a very small bit of that tax dollars for local government," Singh said, adding the municipality could be "quickly overwhelmed" by costs.

"If we're able to work collaboratively, that's really appreciated."

But Brown says there's a problem. An external assessment done after the 2018 floods found $2 million was needed to mitigate future flooding. 

"Part of the issue is trying to get to the ministry, and letting them know that we have a greater need," she said, adding that Merritt hopes to have those discussions once it decides on budget priorities.  

Taking matters into their own hands

But there are plenty in town who have been frustrated in the past by the slow pace.

"I didn't know what to do," said Colleen Waddell, manager of the Eldorado Trailer Park.

"And I didn't know who to contact. And so, we just started moving."

Last year, Waddell and others took matters into their own hands, laying sandbags around the trailer park when government help was slow to come. Now, Waddell is trying to get a dike installed on the section of the Nicola River near the park. 

But the plan must first be approved by the province and Ottawa, she said. "They say it's difficult to have it done in time for the next high water season," she said.

Mayor Brown acknowledged some people aren't as patient. Some residents are attempting to create berms on their own, raising a question of whether they're properly engineered.

She'll continue work on a solution in the months ahead — while understanding that no matter what Merritt does, part of the equation is out of her hands. 

"If Mother Nature decides to take her course despite us, there's not a whole lot we can do about it other than to work together as a community," she said. 

Metro Matters: On The Road is exploring how new city governments throughout B.C. are approaching age-old issues (some political, some not) in their communities.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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