The Current

Lots of politics but 'no real plan' to prevent more catastrophic flooding, say B.C. farmers

It’s been a year since catastrophic floods hit British Columbia, and some farmers there are worried it could happen again. They say not enough has been done to prevent another disaster.

Sumas Prairie farmland was flooded for three weeks in Nov. 2021 floods

A man and woman standing in a barn, with cattle feeding in the background.
Philip and Trina Graham at their farm in the Sumas Prairie, in B.C. They suffered extensive flooding last November. (Enza Uda/CBC)

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Philip Graham was on his Abbotsford, B.C. dairy farm last year, when a nearby dike broke and sent a torrent of floodwater onto his land. 

"I saw a river come around the corner, it was probably a two-foot wave coming straight through our yard," said Philip, whose farm lies in the Sumas Prairie, on the site of a lake drained in the 1920s. 

As the waters rose and flooded his barn, he found himself "waist deep in ice-cold water" and trying to save his animals, even moving some to higher ground with the help of a boat.

Despite his efforts, Philip lost 200 animals to the floods, which kept his land under water for three weeks. The disaster was part of the intense rainfall that affected large parts of the province last November, submerging entire communities, triggering fatal landslides and buckling sections of highway and other infrastructure.

WATCH | Flooding on the Sumas Prairie in Nov. 2021

Rain, snow compound flood risks in Abbotsford, B.C.

1 year ago
Duration 3:22
Recent rainfall has increased the risk of more flooding in Abbotsford, B.C. The threats are compounded by the Nooksack River in the U.S. breaching its banks and run off from recent snowfall.

Philip and his wife Trina Graham have spent the past year rebuilding. They raised about $400,000 between insurance, government support, and an online fundraiser — but are still working to cover the estimated $1,000,000 in damages they suffered. 

But as another winter sets in, Trina said the dike to prevent further flooding has only been patched, not permanently fixed. 

"We're a year into it and we still have so much that is not up to snuff, you know? And so I really just want to get that point across that it's not fixed," she said.

Philip said the idea that the flooding could happen again occupies his thoughts.

"It takes a toll knowing that there's a problem that could happen again, and that you might have to go through this one more time."

Cows look out through a grate, as they eat hay.
Hundreds of animals perished in last year's floods. (Enza Uda/CBC)

He wants to see authorities find ways to protect his and other farms.

"There's no real plan. There's lots of politics going on and there's lots of thoughts and ideas. But … I don't think there's an actual plan," he said.

Billion-dollar plan can't happen 'overnight'

Outgoing Mayor of Abbotsford Henry Braun said there is a plan in progress, but approval and funding takes time to secure.

In June, Abbotsford council approved a plan to overhaul its flood prevention systems, including a new pump station and new dikes. But with a price tag of $2.8 billion, the plan needs funding approval from the province.

"Every opportunity I have, I keep pounding this to the point where I think they're probably a little bit sick and tired of hearing from me," said Braun, who retires as mayor next week.

"They say, 'Yes, we're doing the analysis and the assessments,' and that has to happen."

Farmland in the Sumas Prairie in B.C. was submerged for three weeks. ( Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Braun said he understands the frustrations of farmers, but said that "getting funding requests for $2.8 billion is not something that just happens overnight."

"I think that we are, you know, getting ever closer to a decision."

Mike Farnworth, B.C.'s minister of public safety, said the problems with the province's flood prevention have been decades in the making, and that his government is "actively working on ensuring that we have a proper flood and diking strategy."

He added that work on repairing dikes damaged last year is still underway and will be completed by the end of November. 

Braun said some dikes have already been fortified, and raised in height, but many were built decades ago and do not meet earthquake standards — something he wants funding to address.

Rebuild or retreat?

The Sumas Prairie was created a century ago when Lake Sumas was drained to make way for agriculture. The local Sumas First Nation relied on the lake's salmon as a food source, but their objections to draining it were ignored

WATCH | Massive pumps needed to keep area dry

The 100-year-old decision that contributed to Abbotsford, B.C., flooding

1 year ago
Duration 2:30
More than 100 years ago, a lake outside what is now the Abbotsford, B.C., area was drained to create lucrative farmland. Many say that decision is a big contributor to the devastating flooding.

The Barrowtown Pump Station held the water at bay, but was overwhelmed in last year's floods. Braun's proposals include a new supplementary pump station on the Sumas River. But some experts warn that worsening climate change means the lake cannot be held back indefinitely, and consideration must be given to relocating inhabitants of the flood plain

Braun said he totally disagrees, pointing out that the Sumas Prairie is also home to billions of dollars worth of highway, railway and energy infrastructure that is penned in by mountains on either side.

"It's not just farmers that you would wipe out," he said.

The Graham's farm has been in their family for three generations, and Trina said they always dreamed of passing it down to their five kids. But the floods have made them think seriously about whether they could bring themselves to move, and if they could even raise the funds to do so.

"We're farmers through and through. There's nothing that's going to stop us from farming, whether it's here or somewhere else," she said.

"[But] if it floods again, who's going to want to buy it?"

Audio produced by Enza Uda

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