British Columbia·Video

Residents in B.C.'s Interior call for province to fix hundreds of 'orphan dikes'

The reason so many dikes are left without maintenance because flood management is the responsibility of local governments in B.C. and not the province. That approach leads to a lot of dikes falling through the cracks, especially those located away from municipal boundaries.

More than 175 dikes in the province have no government taking responsibility for them

Bev Greenwell stands in front of the remnants of an orphan dike on the Similkameen River next to her farm east of Princeton, B.C. The dike failed in mid-November, which left her farm and numerous other properties under water. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

When Bev Greenwell bought Happy Hollow Farm east of Princeton, B.C., an old dike near her hayfield held back the Similkameen River.

Greenwell said she has no idea when the dike was built near the southern Interior river. She says it could have been put up back in 1948, when the highway running along her farm was a train track. 

For two decades after she bought her property, it remained steadfast against the ebbs and flows of the Similkameen, holding back the river "quite well," according to Greenwell.

But on Monday, Nov. 15, torrential downpours put the entire hayfield under water. The next night, a section of the dike broke, washing out significant portions of the farm and half a dozen other properties in the area.

Aerial view of the orphan dike near Happy Hollow Farm. Highway 3 is also seen alongside the property. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

"Our field is … prime agricultural soil, and we're losing it," she said. "Possibly losing it forever … it'll take a 100 years to get that soil [back]."

The dike alongside Greenwell's farm is one of numerous "orphan dikes" in British Columbia — crucial parts of the province's flood management infrastructure that no government has claimed jurisdiction over.

A 2015 report showed there were 178 such orphan dikes across the province.

The reason so many dikes are left without maintenance is because flood management is the responsibility of local governments in B.C. and not the province.

That approach leads to a lot of red tape and dikes falling through the cracks, especially those located away from municipal boundaries like the one near Greenwell's farm.

Greenwell said she had previously tried to reinforce the dike, but called it a "losing battle".

The destroyed dike created mud and debris flows throughout Greenwell's property. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

"The bureaucracy for touching a dam, or a dike, or anything near water — it gets pretty thick," she said.

Engineers from the province came to inspect the dike, according to Greenwell, and she also reached out to the local Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, but no repairs have been done nearly three weeks after the disaster.

"I've had phone call after phone call into various people, and it's been impossible to get any kind of response," she said.

WATCH | Orphan dikes leave many communities inundated:

Pressure on B.C. to repair and upgrade orphaned dikes

10 months ago
Duration 2:04
Land owners and municipalities in B.C. want the provincial government to repair and upgrade dozens of orphaned dikes. Many of them were built several decades ago and have degraded over time, no longer offering reliable flood protection.

Horgan says diking system a 'bad call'

Spencer Coyne, the mayor of Princeton, says orphaned dikes are a "huge issue" for communities in B.C.'s Interior, especially near the Similkameen and its tributaries like the Tulameen River.

"The entire Tulameen [River] is protected by orphaned dikes," he said. "Everything downriver from the town of Princeton is also orphaned."

"We have hundreds of kilometres of orphaned dikes. We need a commitment from the province and the federal government to come in and help us with these."

In the town of Keremeos, downstream from Princeton, floodwaters poured over ill-maintained orphan dikes into a trailer park in November.

Keremeos Mayor Manfred Bauer has been lobbying the province for decades over the issue with no avail.

"This isn't going to go away," he said. "You can invest your money and prevent the loss of lives and assets, or you can keep doing what you've been doing for the last 50 years."

Mayor Manfred Bauer of Keremeos, B.C., aside a municipally owned dike. He says the province should act fast to raise dikes before further catastrophes happen. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

A 2020 government report estimated upgrading the province's orphan dikes would cost $865 million, and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth has said the issue is "significant," hinting at legislation to change the province's flood management policies.

Premier John Horgan also admitted that B.C.'s dike management system is flawed and needs changing.

"[The diking system] was a bad call," he said. "There needs to be more than those local dollars at play if we're going to protect communities going forward."

With files from Brady Strachan and Gian-Paolo Mendoza

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