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Flood mitigation crucial to preventing future disasters: Senate report on B.C.’s 2021 floods

Future flood damages could be 10-times worse, one witness testified
Debris from receding flood waters is pictured along a road as heavy rains form an atmospheric river continue in Abbotsford, B.C., Nov. 30, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

Building flood mitigation infrastructure and better managing transboundary waters is needed if the feds want to avoid future disasters like the destructive 2021 floods that disconnected the Lower Mainland from the rest of the B.C., a senate committee has found.

The Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry compiled the testimony of 23 witnesses and three written briefs into its report released Thursday (Oct. 27), revealing the impact of the floods, gaps in government response and failings in emergency preparedness.

Senator Paula Simons said everything they heard suggested if money isn’t invested now, things will get far more expensive later.

Together, she and Senator Robert Black made three recommendations:

• that provincial and federal governments work with municipalities and First Nations in the Fraser Valley to develop a flood control plan, including upgrading dikes and establishing a working committee;

• that the federal government ensure all its disaster response and support programs are being delivered in the most efficient way possible, with all the necessary financing and human resources; and

• that the federal government work with the United States on managing transboundary waters such as the Nooksack River.

Majority of region’s dikes won’t hold back flood

Upgrading the region’s dikes was highlighted in the witness testimony. Monica Mannerstrom, the principal flood management engineer for Northwest Hydraulic Consultants Ltd., told the senate committee the dikes are far from meeting provincial standards.

According to her, “87 per cent of the dikes in the Lower Mainland were ‘in less-than-fair condition,’ ” and 71 per cent of the dikes were “expected to fail simply by overtopping” in the event of a flood.

Mannerstrom further told the committee that, if the Fraser River overflows its banks in the future, she expects the damage to be 10 times worse than that seen in November 2021.

The cost of upgrading the dikes won’t be cheap, however. Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun said options his city mapped out in April suggested a price tag between $2.5 billion and $2.8 billion. Simons said part of their recommendations is tasking governments with determining how those upgrades can be paid for.

Farmers felt left behind

Numerous witnesses told the senate committee that provincial and federal supports offered some help, but took too long to reach them. Jack Dewit, chair of the BC Pork Producers’ Association, said, six months after the floods, many were still waiting for help.

The B.C. government estimated more than 1,000 farms, 15,000 hectares of land and 2.5 million livestock were impacted by the floods. Damages to farmers alone amounted to $285 million.

In these instances, “there is no time for red tape,” Simons said on Thursday. She and Black said relief agencies need to make applications as frictionless as possible, and governments need to make sure they have the resources to operate seamlessly.

Impact extends far beyond the Fraser Valley

While the 2021 floods hit those in the Fraser Valley the hardest, the impacts extended throughout the province and beyond.

The Fraser Valley is one of the most fertile regions in Canada, and is responsible for a large supply of meat, poultry and produce.

Jason Lum, chair of the Fraser Valley Regional District, told the senate committee that farms in the Fraser Valley generate almost 40 per cent of the province’s gross annual farm receipts, despite only accounting for 2.4 per cent of B.C.’s farmland.

When the atmospheric river hit last November, not only were farms destroyed, but major transportation routes that would normally move goods throughout the province were also damaged.

Jeremy Dunn, general manager of BC Dairy, said a delivery trip that would normally take two hours suddenly turned into 12 to 16 hours following the floods.

The region will flood again

Senators Simon and Black said their witnesses made it clear to them that future floods are guaranteed to occur in the region.

“We’ll see this happen again and again and again,” Black said.

They said they hope the federal government takes their recommendations seriously so when waters do hit the Fraser Valley in the future, the level of damage is far lessened.

“We want people to pay attention,” Simon said.

READ ALSO: Communities across B.C. want province to increase flood preparation and mitigation

READ ALSO: New pump station and dikes proposed in latest Abbotsford flood mitigation option


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About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media.
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