November 18, 2022
Tacoutche Tesse, the Northwest’s great ghost river — Part 2: The flood and building back better
Eric Scigliano

Pole hooks in hand, Les Antone’s fellow Kwantlen First Nation members spent days saving the Brae Island-Langley bridge after the November 2021 flood, as millions of board feet of timber — along with kitchen appliances and even buildings — swept down the Fraser, threatening to knock out the bridge. The Kwantlen are among 31 First Nations who’ve joined together to prepare for future disasters. (Eric Scigliano photo © 2022)

November 18, 2022
Tacoutche Tesse, the Northwest’s great ghost river — Part 2: The flood and building back better
Eric Scigliano

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“That little bridge was in danger of collapsing,” said Les Antone, pointing to the not-so-little steel and concrete structure that spans the south channel of the Fraser River and connects his island-based community, the Kwantlen First Nation, to Fort Langley on the British Columbia mainland.

“All the debris was pushing this up” he added, indicating the net shed — the barn-like floating structure where various communities store their fishing nets, and where we were standing in unseasonable November sunshine a year after the catastrophic floods that ravaged the lower Fraser River Valley. 

“All this was washing away, with two boats attached to it,” Antone continued, stepping onto a dock secured by heavy chains to the shed’s downstream side. “It was moved out about 20 or 30 feet when we caught it with a pike pole and pulled it back. We winched it in place with come-alongs and chained it up. We were just lucky.”

For 100 yards out from shore, the river was a seething mass of logs torn loose from floating booms, plus the odd houseboat and net shed. “Tons of fridges, stoves, freezers, everything you could imagine,” said Antone, a member of the Kwantlen governing council with a fisheries portfolio. 

“Millions of board feet of wood. The pileup was 10 miles long. The water was over six meters high. When the logs hit the bridge they spun around and piled up against it. We were calling Langley, saying, ‘Come on, you guys, your bridge is gonna wash out!’

“Three or four guys came out here, in their best white hardhats, looking at it, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. ‘So what are you guys gonna do?’ I asked. They said they were ‘assessing the situation.’ “

So Antone’s fellow Kwanten set out to save the city’s bridge. “They had to stand on the bridge and net sheds and shove the logs away with pike poles — for a week, night and day, every nine hours or so,” all the while knowing they were pushing aside a small fortune. “There were some nice logs there. If a guy had a portable sawmill he could have made millions and millions. We tried to get a tugboat from the municipalities [to retrieve them], but no one answered. I guess they were pretty busy.”

Calm on this day, the north channel of the Fraser, filled with logs and debris a year ago, has washed away 35 acres on the right.  (Eric Scigliano photo © 2022)

First Nations reserves were battered, splattered and inundated by the costliest floods in the province’s history. As Antone noted, the Kwantlen were among the lucky ones. Although they’d previously lost 35 acres on the other side of Brae Island to the river’s powerful north channel, their homes stood safe. 

Wetland lake, flooded prairie

So did those of the Sumas (Semá:th) Nation, though their lands lie along the valley that shares their name and that suffered the worst flooding of all: Sumas Prairie, formerly Sumas Lake (Semá:th Xhotsa), which was drained nearly 100 years ago to turn rich wildlife habitat into rich farmland. Before, the lake would expand and contract like an accordion, according to the amount of water streams poured into it — a classic wetland, one of the most biologically productive of all habitats. 

The Semá:th continued building their homes upslope along B.C.’s Sumas Mountain, where, as Chief Dalton Silver told the CBC, their elders assured them they would be safe “should this lake come back.” Indeed, a tribal account of Semá:th history tells of a Noah-scale flood “more than 10,000 years ago” that they survived by anchoring their canoes and making their homes atop the mountain. They feasted on the lake’s prolific salmon and other fish but built no permanent structures there. They’ve sought compensation in land for all they lost when the lake was drained, but the process could take decades.

On Nov. 16, 2021, the current occupiers of that artificial prairie, who did build to last, got a very rude awakening. As record rains poured down, the city of Abbotsford, British Columbia’s largest city by area and largest outside metro Vancouver in population, told Sumas Prairie residents to evacuate immediately; the waters rose even more. 

When they receded, they left five people dead, plus 420 cattle, 12,000 hogs and 630,000 chickens: this section of the Fraser Valley is British Columbia’s richest agricultural region, producing most of its eggs, dairy, blueberries and other crops. The federal government extended $5 billion Canadian for post-flood recovery and reconstruction; the total cost will run much higher.

Farmers and politicians lamented the “unprecedented” or “500-year” intensity of the flood and the rain that was its proximate cause. But it was just one more instance of a global phenomenon, lately seen from North Dakota to Australia to the Rhineland, as semi-pervious agriculture and impervious urban surfaces gobble up more and more floodplains, and a changing climate throws ever bigger storms at them. (November 2021 was the wettest month ever recorded in Abbotsford, with 22 inches of rain.) In retrospect, the Fraser Valley last November looks like a grayer, chillier preview of Pakistan under the following summer’s monsoon waters.

The Nooksack’s quirky turn

Far from being unprecedented, the Sumas Prairie’s inundation actually represents a return to two past baselines. One, Sumas Lake, ended just a century ago, thanks to human intervention. The other ended less than a thousand years ago, thanks to a river’s quirky turn.

Whatcom County’s main river, the Nooksack, swells with the meltwater of Mount Baker, probably the snowiest place on Planet Earth. For untold millennia the Nooksack headed north for its whole course, bearing these waters to Semá:th Xhotsa and Tacoutche Tesse (the Fraser River), together with sediment that helped form the vast delta south of today’s Vancouver. Then, at the site of the present-day town of Everson, the Nooksack found a more direct channel to the sea, hooking west, then south at today’s Lynden and down to Bellingham Bay.

But last November, and before that in November 1990, the Nooksack overflowed its banks and dikes, found its old channel, and poured north toward its old destination, the Fraser. With that river now diked off to keep it from refilling the old lake bed, the Nooksack’s waters had nowhere to go but everywhere, spreading across the prairie.

And so the province and the valley’s cities have fixed on two main strategies to try to prevent the next big flood: to sustain and fortify the diking and pumping they’ve used to contain the waters seeking to reconstitute Sumas Lake, and to somehow persuade Washington State to contain the Nooksack so its floodwaters don’t head north again. But a growing roster of environmentalists, technical experts, First Nations and even some farmers contend that this agenda will only set “Abby” and the prairie up for an even worse drenching as the climate continues changing — and that it squanders a rare opportunity to reverse a century-long pattern of river-choking, fish-killing ecosystem havoc.

Tyrone McNeil, Stó:l­ō First Nations tribal chief, is among those seeking solutions that meet the needs of Indigenous communities. (Eric Scigliano photo © 2022)

These critics joined under the rubric of the Build Back Better Together Collaborative (BBBT). The label derives not from America’s post-pandemic spending package but from the United Nation’s Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, which spells out principles for resilient, equitable, broadly participatory and environmentally beneficial rebuilding after natural disasters, and which Canada and British Columbia have endorsed. 

Principles for rebuilding

The effort began with the Emergency Management Secretariat, a gathering of 31 First Nations chaired by Stó:l­ō Tribal Chief Tyrone McNeil, which aims to better direct relief and reconstruction to the actual needs of Indigenous communities. “This is the first time we’ve been able to control the agenda,” McNeil told me during a break in a meeting he led at Kwantlen in early November between federal and provincial emergency management officials and 20 of the nations in the Secretariat. “We told them, if we can’t control it, we won’t participate.”

Participants recounted their frustration with the autopilot manner in which flood recovery and water management have proceeded in the Fraser Valley.

“We’re so busy digging the ditch, we’re not looking ahead to where we’re going,” said one.

“In every single case, the environment has not been of concern in the efforts,” one white-haired leader intoned. “We need to take a more holistic approach. It should not be top-down [from the government]. It should be a collaboration involving everyone.”

BBBT representatives take pains to note that theirs is an “Indigenous-led” collaborative — savvy perhaps in an era of growing First Nations activism and influence. Other associations can also establish credibility, notes Dave Zehnder, a rancher-turned-conservationist in the Kootenay country of eastern British Columbia whose Farmland Advantage nonprofit, a BBBT member, helps farmers protect riparian habitat. 

“So many lower mainland farmers are Dutch,” Zehnder told me. “They bring their farmland ethic and agronomic view from there. They’re proud of their heritage — they think anything from Holland must be better. So when we present this work it helps to have Dutch expertise behind it.” 

That expertise can be eye-opening, and blunt in classic Dutch fashion. “Two years before the flooding, we brought an engineer over from Holland. His primary focus was fish-friendly pumps. But he looked at our dike system and said, ‘You guys are stupid, you’re setting yourselves up, your dikes are going to fail’ — which is just what happened,” said Zehnder.

Holland offers an alternative. When the river advocates went looking for successful models, “the national Dutch program, Room for the River, was the one that seemed to work really well,” said Lina Azeez, campaign manager at the Vancouver-based Watershed Watch Salmon Society, a BBBT member. That’s not surprising; like the Sumas Prairie, half of Holland lies below sea level. The program’s name sums it up: removing dikes, digging side channels and “depoldering” (relinquishing reclaimed land) to give rivers room to safely release their floodwaters, meanwhile creating “an attractive environment for both people and animals.”

Changing “the way we think about water” is needed to for communities, farmers and the environment to co-exist on the Fraser flood plane, asserts Lina Azeez of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. (Eric Scigliano photo © 2022)

Azeez also lauded another model closer to home: Washington’s Floodplains by Design, operated by The Nature Conservancy, Puget Sound Partnership and state Department of Ecology, which helps communities, farmers and the environment coexist on the state’s floodplains. “You guys are ahead of us!” she said with a laugh. “But we’re trying to change the way we think about and manage water.”

Flat, fertile land that’s scarce and precious

Making that change is especially fraught in British Columbia, where flat, fertile land is relatively scarce and precious. “We like to say that the province is 95% rocks and ice,” chuckled Zehnder. That’s an exaggeration, but only about 5% is designated “agricultural reserve,” and restricting any of that makes many people nervous. “But it’s disproportionately important to biodiversity,” noted Zehnder. “By a factor of 10 it’s the most biologically productive zone.”

Azeez suggested farmers could shift to crops that can tolerate flooding but didn’t offer examples. Cranberries, which the valley already grows? Rice, as in the Sacramento River delta? That sounds fanciful in Canada, but it’s been done in Vermont. Zehnder said some perennial grasses can take the flooding, but the forage they provide wouldn’t likely be as lucrative as blueberries. Tamsin Lyle, a Vancouver-based engineer and flood-management specialist working with BBBT, noted that some of the land is given over to “barns and greenhouses that could be located elsewhere” (hog and chicken structures, anyway; dairy cows need pasture as well).

Whether government and public thinking should change, and how much, are on the line as ground-zero Abbotsford rebuilds its flood controls with federal and provincial support. “In December there were some strong signals from the federal and provincial systems that we should be taking a different approach,” Lyle told me. “But in every flood or disaster event there’s a narrow window when there’s a lot of attention and readiness to consider new ideas, which falls off after a couple months. The practicalities of writing legislation, drafting rules, and convincing the public take a lot longer.” 

Abbotsford moved relatively quickly, announcing its preferred “long-term flood mitigation option” in June. Total cost: to be determined, but somewhere north of the $2.8 billion Canadian estimated for the priciest of the initial options, since it includes an additional dike along the border.

Much of it is more of the same — a lot more. The plan will elevate part of the Trans-Canada Highway, make permanent emergency repairs already done to the Sumas Dike and upgrade the massive Barrowtown Pump Station that pushes the Fraser back from the prairie, which the November flood nearly swamped. It will also build new pump stations on the Sumas River and three more on creeks west of the prairie. And it will build new dikes around the Sumas First Nation Reserve and along the highway’s north side.

Most provocatively, it will build a dike along the border to protect the towns of Huntingdon and Arnold from Sumas/Nooksack River floodwaters — a border wall against water rather than migrants.

The plan does include some Dutch-style non-dike, non-pump elements: designated floodways on the prairie’s west and north sides and controlled overflow and temporary flood storage areas. An “unprotected floodplain” is designated on the west prairie but left to “private mitigation.” 

Build Back Better or more of the same?

On Nov. 10, shortly before the flood’s anniversary, B.C. Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth, the Semá:th First Nation’s Chief Dalton Silver, and Abbotsford’s new mayor met the press on the Sumas River Main Dike to report on recovery progress. Farnworth recounted the millions the province has spent on dike repair and disaster assistance, but they’re just a drop in the bucket of the “$7 to 9” billion diking bill he said still loomed. Despite the cost, he said the province had to take that on: “We need to have a province-wide diking strategy. The decision to delegate dikes to local government 20 years ago was not the right way to go. Some communities have been able to maintain them and some have not.”

Chief Silver praised his podium-mates but injected two subtle cautionary notes. “I’ve made a lot of noise,” he said, “about our participation in the planning of things like this”; indeed, the longtime disregard of First Nations views and needs is a sore spot widely felt. He noted “the wildlife that is evident here today, the swans that were endangered on the river at one time, the two eagles that appeared as we were walking down here,” and concluded, “I really do hope we can move forward together and create a better place for our people in the future, and for the wildlife.” He was the only one to acknowledge the latter constituency. 

Asked about the Build Back Better Together Collaborative’s alternative vision, Farnworth said “we’ve been working very closely with them. First off is a complete overhaul of the emergency management program of British Columbia, working with First Nations, and it’s built upon Sendai principles.” He added that of the $5 billion from the federal government, “15% is to build back better.”

That means that 85% is for more of the same. The BBBT collaborators are not much impressed with the allocation, the degree of transparency around it, or Abbotsford’s plan.

Lyle concedes that that plan’s floodways and controlled overflows, while “tokenistic,” are “definitely moving in the right direction. Of the four options they looked at, they eliminated the worst elements.” Still, she added, “it’s not a very big toolbox. They need to consider more tools.”

The “bigger problem,” in her view, is “the lack of process. They did not engage with the local First Nations. They did do some public engagement, but it was false engagement. They didn’t ask what people needed, for a vision of where we ought to be and how to get there. Rather, ‘Here are the four options, tell us what you like about them.’ And they were four of the same option.” 

(Asked to comment, Mayor Ross Siemens, Abbotsford’s only authorized spokesperson, didn’t “have any availability for an interview.” Provincial officials likewise did not respond to questions in time for publication.)

Despite Farnworth’s assurances, the larger federal and provincial investment remains a puzzle. “A year later, five billion dollars, what the hell is going on?” Zehnder exclaimed. “We’ve been trying to find out since the announcement of the money, what’s the plan for how it will be spent? If we just pour billions into dikes, we’re just digging a deeper hole.”

This is the second in a series of stories exploring the Fraser River and the lands, waters and people connected to it. Future installments will dig into killer floodgates and deadly dikes, the perils Fraser salmon face even after they leave the river, the vulnerable island refuges at the “Heart of the Fraser” and the international tangle over floodwaters that respect no boundaries.

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— Reported by Eric Scigliano

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photo: Amy Nelson © 2022
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