Canada·THE FIFTH ESTATE

Province was warned breached B.C. dike 'substandard' years before it failed

A report commissioned by the B.C. government in 2015 found that the Sumas River dike, which protects the Sumas Prairie from floodwaters, was “substandard,” “too low” and “need[ed] to be updated.”

‘Catastrophic’ damage to Fraser Valley communities ‘preventable’ and ‘predictable’ - officials say

The breached dike in Abbotsford, B.C. was warned about as far back as 2015 in a report that said it was "substandard" and "need[ed] to be updated." (Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters)

In the early morning hours of Nov. 16, the Sumas River dike in Abbotsford, B.C., overflowed and later broke apart, causing swelling rivers to flood some of the most fertile agricultural lands in the province. 

The floods destroyed homes and farms, triggering an estimated $1 billion in damage, according to Abbotsford's mayor.

While this might have seemed to be the result of an unforeseen weather event, it was, in fact, a scenario engineers have repeatedly warned was likely to happen one day.

"There's that pit in your stomach where you're thinking, 'Is this the moment where I get to say I told you so?' " said Tamsin Lyle, an engineer and one of several experts who had warned of flood risks in the Lower Mainland. 

In fact, a report commissioned by the B.C. government in 2015 found that the Sumas River dike, which protects the Sumas Prairie from floodwaters, was "substandard," "too low" and "need[ed] to be updated." 

The same report also found that none of the 74 dikes examined in the Lower Mainland fully met the province's standards. 

Jason Lum, chair of the Fraser Valley Regional District, said the flooding has been "catastrophic" for his hometown of Chilliwack and other communities. 

He said he's warned for years about the need to update infrastructure and the financial challenges municipalities face in trying to maintain dikes.

"It was preventable and I think it was predictable," Lum told The Fifth Estate. "There's going to be a time and a place where we're all going to be held accountable for our role."

The province sets the standards for dike safety, but local communities are responsible for the cost of maintenance and repairs.

Jason Lum, who is also a Chilliwack city councillor, said he hasn't seen damage to this extent in his lifetime. (Roxanna Woloshyn/CBC)

Lum said municipalities, especially smaller communities, do not always have the financial capacity to maintain the standard set by the province on their own.

"It's absolutely asinine to think that [these municipalities] could pay for a multimillion-dollar dike upgrade." 

Mayor knew dike was low, but city doesn't have 'financial wherewithal'

The Sumas Prairie area was a lake until the 1920s, when it was drained to create a fertile farming region that now generates about $1.8 billion in revenue annually. A series of dikes, canals and a pumping station were constructed to prevent the lake from returning. 

Still, these protections have not always worked. As recently as 1990, the Nooksack River overflowed, flooding parts of Washington state and north into Abbotsford's Sumas River basin.

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun told The Fifth Estate he was aware that the Sumas River dike was not built high enough.

Henry Braun, mayor of Abbotsford, said the city knew that the Sumas River dike was low, but the cost to repair dikes is inordinate for municipalities to pay for on their own. (John Badcock/CBC)

"It shouldn't be at that level or it should be raised. But local government doesn't have the financial wherewithal because we only collect property taxes," said Braun, who has been mayor since 2014. 

"We have not been investing in our infrastructure at every level for decades…. And this is what happens when you ignore warnings." 

Province must take 'stronger role' in dike investment, minister says 

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the province has invested $105 million over the past few years in projects that strengthen dikes and flood mitigation.

At the same time, he said responsibility for maintaining dikes was transferred from the province to local governments a number of years ago.

In an interview with The Fifth Estate on Monday, Farnworth said it was time for the government to rethink that responsibility. 

"One of the lessons from this event, obviously, is the need for continued investment in dikes and, in my view, a stronger role for the province in that process." 

B.C.'s public safety minister Mike Farnworth (left) said the province has spent $105 million on upgrading dikes and improving flood mitigation over the past couple of years. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Lyle, a leading flood management engineer, wrote a report for the provincial government in May. In it, she stated that "the current model for flood risk governance in B.C. is broken." 

Lyle said she was asked by senior bureaucrats to "tone down the language." But she declined. 

"One of my proudest moments is that I kept that line in," she said. 

Dike breach being filled but threat looms

By Thursday, work to close the breach in the 90-metre Sumas River dike was nearly complete, according to the City of Abbotsford. The repairs are expected to curb the flow of water into the Sumas Prairie and prevent further damage.

But a 2020 report commissioned by the City of Abbotsford indicates that without a longer-term solution, the low-lying prairie remains at significant risk. Climate change impacts will make dike breaches more common, the report says. 

"The climate is changing and the traditional infrastructure that we have in place is not going to keep us safe the way it did when it was built 100 years ago," said Lum.

Officials were warned flood prevention infrastructure could fail before catastrophic storm: experts

1 year ago
Duration 3:36
A family's home was consumed by floodwaters after a dike failed, causing the nearby river to overflow. The Fifth Estate has learned that experts warned for years the area's dike system could fail.

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