U.S., Canada make headway on cross-border Nooksack flood strategy - Salish Current
September 12, 2023
U.S., Canada make headway on cross-border Nooksack flood strategy
Catherine Skrzypinski and Clifford Heberden

Pastures became peninsulas when the Nooksack River flooded in November 2021. The flooding inundated roads, damaged homes, displaced residents and disrupted lives — and many in the Nooksack Basin are still rebuilding. Meanwhile, officials are progressing on long-term strategies to better deal with flooding in the future. Is it enough? (State of Washington, Office of the Governor photo)

September 12, 2023
U.S., Canada make headway on cross-border Nooksack flood strategy
Catherine Skrzypinski and Clifford Heberden

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In response to the November 2021 floods, and in preparation for floods to come, governments on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border are striving to find transboundary consensus while completing individual projects. 

B.C. has a strong relationship with neighbors in Washington state, according to the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness. Both governments are working closely to come up with both short- and long-term solutions to address flooding challenges that have been present for decades. 

Bruce Banman, a member of B.C.’s Legislative Assembly representing Abbotsford South and shadow minister for Emergency Management, Climate Readiness and Citizen Services, pointed to the Columbia River Treaty of 1964 as an example of what can be done about transboundary water issues in the region. 

The Columbia Treaty is both an example of agreement and a cautionary tale, as it did not take input from stakeholders including First Nations and Columbia Basin residents. Banman reminded that this time the process has to involve all affected parties.

“First Nations and tribal communities have to be in consultation, [along with] farmers, local governments, provincial and federal governments,” he said. “It gets very complicated in a hurry as to the consultation that needs to happen and what needs to be done in the event that a flood happens again.”

Short-term projects

While governments are looking years and decades ahead, residents in the floodplain want to know about their prospects during the fast-approaching rainy season during a time of climate change. “We will see more intense storm events,” said Paula Harris, river and flood manager for Whatcom County. “There’s a whole lot of uncertainty.”

Jed Holmes, public information officer for the county executive’s office, listed some of the projects completed by early September: “Our river gauges have been improved, which will give us a better estimate of how much water is coming down the valley. Having experienced the 2021 flood, we have a better sense of which areas will be affected by floodwaters, and the leadership of our small cities is better positioned to make the call on evacuations, if that necessity arises.” New emergency sirens, soon to be installed, will help communities warn their residents. 

Floodwaters in Everson and other areas lingered for weeks in some areas after the November 2021 flooding. (Alan Fritzberg / Salish Current file photo)

County government’s response to the 2021 floods was criticized for poor communication with both residents and small-town officials, leaving volunteers to organize and communicate much of the rescue and shelter outreach. 

“We are continually expanding our arsenal of communication tools to keep the public informed about emergencies and evacuation notifications,” Holmes said. “New gates have been installed on key arterials, helping to keep people off flooded roadways. We purchased rescue boats, which will be staged in different parts of the county to improve our capacity for water rescues.”

The county is working through a list of projects to reduce and redirect floodwaters, Holmes said. “Earlier this year Public Works finished the Jones Creek berm, which reduces the risk to the town of Acme from floodwaters and sediment coming off Stewart Mountain. Work continues on Swift Creek to reduce debris and sediment coming off Sumas Mountain.

“At the same time, we remain years and hundreds of millions of dollars away from finalizing plans and creating infrastructure capable of handling the volume of floodwaters seen in November 2021,” Holmes said.

And as Harris pointed out, if the future is different from the past because of climate change, then it’s harder to apply lessons learned toward future events along the Nooksack River.

Transboundary cooperation

The cost — both human and financial — of flooding makes the search for solutions and the money to achieve them a priority on both sides of the border. 

The flooding in November 2021 was the latest in a long history of the Nooksack’s waters flowing north across the international boundary between the United States and Canada.

That flood – caused by record-breaking rainfall from a series of atmospheric rivers – displaced around 500 people in Whatcom County and led to the evacuation of more than 18,000 people in British Columbia. The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimated damages above $400 million.

In March 2022, U.S. and Canadian leaders pledged to work together to address future flooding along the Nooksack River. 

Since then, representatives of provincial, state, federal governments as well as Indigenous and local governments on both sides of the border have met on a regular basis, including two site visits — one in Everson in July 2022 and one in Abbotsford in September 2022, according to the B.C. Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness.

Holmes said it’s been a slow process to have high-level representatives from both sides of the border come together, but they met June 15 in Whatcom County, setting the precedent for transboundary cooperation between technical and policy-making experts.

Leadership from the Nooksack Transboundary Flood Initiative — including British Columbia, Washington state, Sumas, Leq’a:mel and Matsqui First Nations, Nooksack Indian Tribe, Lummi Nation, the city of Abbotsford and Whatcom County — worked together on flood mitigation plans and projects.

“B.C. and Whatcom County have a collaborative, technical relationship,” said Erika Douglas, environmental programs manager for Whatcom County. “It’s an example of a strong partnership. While there’s a difference in regulations between the U.S. and Canada, we are working in the same bodies of water.”

The B.C. Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness said they will have more to report about the Nooksack Transboundary Flood Agreement later this fall.

Community’s role in flood relief

The 20th century saw repeated flooding along the Nooksack River, sometimes spilling over into British Columbia. A major flood in November 1990 propelled the creation of the Nooksack River International Task Force. After some initial work and consultation in the 1990s and 2000s, the NRITF sat dormant for most of the 2010s.

Residents of the small Whatcom County community of Marietta found their homes inundated in six feet of freezing floodwater from high tides and melting snow in the Nooksack River on Christmas morning in 2022. (Courtesy photo)

The NRITF is now evaluating different approaches it can take in managing the Nooksack River and preparing its basin for overflow, Holmes said.

“We are participating in a program, Floodplains by Design, where we’ve recognized [the] value in giving the river more horizontal space,” Holmes said. “Dredging or taking out sediment and moving it is really probably not an efficient solution, but pulling back the barriers of the dikes and creating more space that the water can fill up is a solution that can at least slow down flooding.”

This project could also benefit the river by addressing issues that have been plaguing it during other seasons.

“Giving the river more room, creating these natural floodplains that will be wet two or three months out of the year, provides an opportunity to refill aquifers that seep back into the river in the summer months and keep it running,” Holmes said.

Uncertainty remains about taking measures near the Everson Spillway along the North Fork Nooksack just south of Everson. When breached during floods, it sends water toward Sumas and Canada. “If we stop the water from flowing downhill in that particular place, it’ll flow downhill in the other direction,” Holmes said. “It would flood Ferndale and continue to flood Lummi Nation; it’s just really hard to manage how much goes where.” 

Holmes said the river’s hydrology has been changing, with indication in the last couple decades that the Nooksack will push more water to go toward Canada. But tinkering with the hydrology of the river could have unpredictable impacts.

“We’ve got to be very careful and study that,” Holmes said. “It’s possible we’ll figure out a way and rationale that will make us adjust that flow split, but I don’t think we have enough information on the best way to accomplish that.”

Holmes said if projects are able to create more flood resiliency, making the Nooksack wider in places and giving it room to ensure it doesn’t flood Ferndale, there’s a possibility it could be favorable to British Columbia as well.

“It’s going to take us a long time to figure out what to do there,” Holmes said. 

Projects underway

Whatcom County has been working with numerous partners to respond to the November 2021 floods, with coordination with Floodplain Integrated Planning Process (FLIP) teams and Canadian counterparts, Harris said.

One flood hazard reduction project to improve fish habitat is now completed in Whatcom County, while five others are in the planning stages. Several projects on repairing existing flood control structures like levees are still in progress.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started repairing a levee along the north bank of the Nooksack River in Ferndale in July, which was damaged in the 2021 floods. Once repaired, the levee’s restoration will ensure a 100-year level of protection — defined as a 1% chance of occurrence in any given year — for around 750 people, 327 buildings and $90.4 million worth of property in Ferndale. 

Adapting to a changing climate

In Canada, environmental experts have projected larger Fraser River spring freshets resulting from more storm melt, as well as more frequent flooding, said Steve Litke, water programs director for the Fraser Basin Council, a nongovernmental organization in Vancouver. 

The breached Marine Drive levee is one of many repaired in Whatcom County since disastrous flooding in late 2022. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current file photo)

“There will be more frequent atmospheric rivers that will impact parts of B.C. and the Fraser Basin,” Litke added. “Then on the coast, we can expect to have sea level rise, and more intense, larger and frequent winter storms. That’s a big concern because now flood mitigation is faced with a moving target.” 

The U.S. side of the border is also grappling about how to live better with nature, Harris said. River engineers are seeking technical solutions to restore the natural flow of sediment from Everson Bridge down to Bellingham Bay.

Whatcom County officials last conducted a survey of the Nooksack River in 2022, with all models showing a large amount of sediment, Harris said. They will conduct another survey in 2024.

“The river is moving sediment daily,” she added. “The river seems to be stabilizing, but we can’t say for sure.”

Harris said Whatcom County officials will meet in October to educate people on sediment flows through the Nooksack River.

In addition, Whatcom County officials are in talks with local farmers in anticipation of huge rain events this fall, Douglas said. Through the Floodplains by Design program, Whatcom County has worked with the farming community to adapt the area to the new normal, Banman said.

“There’s been some farmers that have changed their crops so that if a flood does exist, there’s a natural sort of overflow to relieve some of the pressure and then it drains back out naturally,” Banman said. “We are looking at doing a similar type thing [in Canada], and we’re also looking at improving the Sumas River [and] Canal.”

Seeking an integrated approach

Litke said the FBC is trying respect broader social, cultural and economic issues, along with the environment. “We support an integrated approach to flood risk reduction. We don’t really see any single solution solving this problem.”

To date, Abbotsford has completed dike repairs, temporary works, and more permanent repairs, reported the B.C.Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness.

“Floods are natural events — they will occur and so there’s also a need for a really solid capacity for emergency planning preparedness and response,” Litke said.

Litke said there needs to be an emphasis on sustainability in these measures because of significant impacts past river and lake management projects have had on fish, other wildlife and ecosystems. “In particular, the network of diking systems has cut off some of the tributary rearing habitats from the Fraser River,” he said.

“There’s been a lot of interest in the Lower Mainland looking at the work done south of the border through Floodplains by Design,” Litke said. “There are those kinds of opportunities in the Lower Mainland to restore some more natural functioning and remove some of the sort of human use and impact of those floodplain areas.” 

But when it comes to the lower Fraser River, Litke said the flow of the river is so significant those approaches are likely to be of limited value on a big flood, which explains the need to keep existing infrastructure.

“There’s still a role for flood protection dikes, and there’s a need for more resilient, flood resilient design for those things that exist in flood hazard areas,” Litke said.

— Reported by Clifford Heberden and Catherine Skrzypinski

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