Sumas Lake: a once (and future?) feature of the border - Salish Current
December 19, 2023
Sumas Lake: a once (and future?) feature of the border
Lane Morgan

Once six times larger than Lake Whatcom, the area long covered by Sumas Lake is now largely farmland. (City of Vancouver Archives)

December 19, 2023
Sumas Lake: a once (and future?) feature of the border
Lane Morgan

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The catastrophic floods of November 2021 that inundated Sumas and the adjoining Lower Fraser Valley farmland just north of the border also turned attention to an Ice Age souvenir many Whatcom residents didn’t know existed: Sumas Lake.

With the pumps at Barrowtown near the Trans-Canada Highway northeast of Abbotsford on the verge of collapse, engineers predicted that Sumas Lake could refill within two days. That would displace thousands of people and more thousands of livestock, and recreate a once-defining feature of the landscape and ecosystem along the 49th parallel.

Old-timers nodded in recognition, but a big lake on the border was news to thousands of others. 

The roaming of a river

Sumas Lake, which began formation in the retreat of the last glacial period about 11,000 years ago, once covered more than 30,000 acres, about six times the size of Lake Whatcom. It was an artifact of an earlier version of the Nooksack River, which in the aftermath of the last glaciers, used to flow north from present-day Everson to join the Fraser River.

Then as now, the river carried a heavy load of sediment, which deposited over centuries in a fan of rocks and dirt. The heaviest rocks and gravel dropped near Everson, some of them now the source of the area’s gravel quarries. Lighter materials traveled farther, settling in the glacier-formed Sumas Valley east of present-day Abbotsford. Most of the soil that makes Sumas Valley such productive farmland was deposited by the Nooksack. 

At some point — time estimates vary between several hundred and a few thousand years ago — the Nooksack cut a new channel to the west from Everson, eventually sending the river to its current mouth on Bellingham Bay. 

Sumas Lake remained, fed by rainfall and periodic flooding. Indigenous groups among the Sto:lo nations, especially the Sumas (Semá:th) Nation, centered their communities around the lake and its resources. Semá:th First Nation Chief Dalton Silver told the Fraser Valley Current in 2021 that historically about 85% of the Sumas Nation’s diet came from the lake and its surrounding shoreline. Provender included salmon, steelhead, massive sturgeon and freshwater mussels. Deer, elk and waterfowl were abundant. Camas and wapato bulbs and berries of many sorts grew near shore, and reeds and grasses provided mats for portable housing and baskets for a variety of uses. 

The lake was susceptible to flooding from the Fraser and its tributaries, especially during spring runoff, and the tribes built their more permanent housing on the uplands near Vedder Mountain. Groups from further south, including the Nooksack, often joined them for trade and ceremonies, and intermarriage was common. One village, Temíxwten, just south of the present border at the confluence of the Sumas River and Johnson Creek in Sumas, was populated by both groups. 

A resource … and a nuisance

When European immigrants reached the region in the 1850s, they resented the periodic flooding of Sumas Lake and coveted the river bottom farmland that lay beneath the water. They also blamed the shallow lake waters for the locally famous mosquitoes, a source of seasonal torment for both humans and animals. 

In the 1980s, old-timers reported that girls would wrap newspapers around their legs under their stockings for protection and that outdoor events included smudge fires to keep the pests at bay. Tribal people wrapped exposed limbs in inner cedar bark, which was supposed to act as both a protection and a repellent. The Sema:th built stilt shelters over the water beyond mosquito range, driving support poles into the lake bottom and lashing on flooring and a roof.

Sumas Lake drew picnickers and partiers from both sides of the border. Local newspapers reported on the gatherings as society news. This group lounged on the shore at Sumas Lake Ridge in 1901. (Roy Jones Collection, Courtesy Whatcom Museum: 1994.41.86.)

Despite their complaints, newcomers on both sides of the border used the lake for recreation — swimming, fishing, boating and picnicking in summer, and hunting and skating in fall and winter. Newspaper social notes regularly mentioned U.S. locals heading north to hunt waterfowl, joined by scores of shooters coming south from other parts of British Columbia. 

Though their own numbers were depleted by illness, settlement pressure and the removal of children to Indian boarding school, the tribes around the lake also continued to depend on it for food and forage. 

Still, the consensus among newcomers was that the lake was a nuisance. Local papers jumped on the train of progress and improvement, with only the tribes and a few non-indigenous duck hunters mourning the potential loss of a vibrant ecosystem. 

 “The reclamation of these Dominion and private lands would be a great boon to the Fraser Valley and the whole province,” the Chilliwack Progress reported in Nov. 6, 1912. Draining the lake would make these “now useless” lands “fertile and productive.”

A complex process

Starting in the 1860s, a string of farmers, engineers and speculators announced plans to drain the lake, using ditches, dikes, levees and floodgates. Some schemes died aborning. Others were approved and sometimes funded by various levels of municipal, provincial and federal government. The plans produced many maps, piles of paperwork, and robust community feuds, but no actual drainage during the next 50 years. 

One wrinkle that diverted attention for a period was the fear, after a bad flood year on the Fraser in 1890, that the river was going to burst its southern bank, reverse flow into Sumas Lake, and then head south across the U.S. border to join the Nooksack. The scare was covered in newspapers across Canada and the U.S. and as far away as Wales, and nearby farmers and ranchers, as well as the Fraser River canneries, asked federal and provincial officials to take action to keep the river Canadian.

How the Fraser was to be induced to stay put was not explained. 

Residents on the U.S. side had no say in the fate of the lake during all this drama, but coverage of the various plans was extensive in both local and national papers. The Lynden Tribune wrote on April 1, 1920, that “Lynden is directly interested in the draining of Sumas Lake, and should greet the news of the letting of the contract for the work with some sort of a celebration. Sumas Lake has been the headquarters of the Army of Mosquitoes, which every summer aviates down this way for a few days. Should the draining of the lake annihilate the whole blooming band not a tear with be shed in Lynden.”

It wasn’t until 1918 that a manageable plan emerged. It involved creation of the Vedder Canal as well as dikes and pumps, and it took another two years for approval and funding. This combination project was begun in 1920 under the American engineer Fred Sinclair, who had previously worked on the Great Northern Railway in Seattle. It finished early in 1924. 

A mostly dry century 

Almost exactly 100 years ago, the last of the lake water was pumped out and diverted toward the Fraser. 

“Only 3,000 acres of water remains in Sumas lake, and this will be pumped out in the course of the next two weeks,” the Miami Herald reported on Dec. 2, 1923. “The whole of the area will be absolutely dry before winter.” 

Traditionally, around 85% of the Semá:th First Nation’s diet came from the lake and its shoreline, noted Chief Dalton Silver in 2021. (Semá:th First Nation photo)

The complex interaction of plant and animal life, and human culture that had been a center for tribal life in the area, was replaced by farmland. 

It turned out to be expensive farmland. The final project cost in 1924 was $3.7 million (around $65 million Canadian in 2023), about double the estimate, and it pushed selling prices over $120 per acre. That was beyond the reach of most family farmers, so corporate farms took over much of Sumas Prairie. The Sema:th Nation received $7 per acre in compensation for lost territory. The Nooksacks, who also traditionally fished and hunted there, got nothing. 

The Canadian Hop Growers Association, headed by the American T. A. Livesly of Salem, Oregon, bought 600 acres in 1926. Tobacco, which had a vogue in various parts of the Pacific Northwest, was also tried. Dairy farms, feed corn, vegetables, berries and turf grass covered much of the rest of the old lake. 

In the next century, the prairie became a center for British Columbia agriculture, with some of the most productive croplands in Canada and thousands of head of livestock, far more livestock than people. 

Farm communities grew up centering on different crops and different ethnicities, including Dutch immigrants, Ukrainian Mennonites and South Asian Sikhs. As farms and houses filled in the old lake and land around it, the province upgraded its flood protection.

Starting in 1979, work began to replace the Sumas pump with a new Barrowtown pump station. That project, costing $27 million, was finished in 1985 and, according to the Trans-Canada Highway website, its “four pump engines running full tilt can pump 500,000 gallons of water a minute” from the lower portions of the prairie. Another 3.5 million gallons per minute heads straight to the Fraser by gravity feed from the old lake’s higher elevations.

Most years this is enough to keep the lake bed and most of the land around it dry. 

But the track of the old channel remains. Every several years when water flow is high enough, the Nooksack jumps its banks and part of its waters head north following the gentle slope of the Nooksack Valley. They pour into Johnson Creek, which goes through present-day Sumas. The water continues north, both overland and into the Sumas River. 

Those same combinations of rain and snowmelt affect the Fraser as well, and some farms and nearby residents are susceptible to floods. Usually the damage is limited to familiar, frequently flooded areas, but not always.

During the flooding of 1990, characterized at the time as a 100-year flood, water ran several feet deep through the streets of Sumas, inundating homes, businesses, the elementary school and the newly built senior center and community library. Less damage occurred north of the border but it was a clear warning sign. In both the U.S. and Canada, committees convened, politicians postured, and then attention moved elsewhere. 

The next 20 years included some minor floods and close escapes, and then came November 2021. [Ed.: See “Devastated after flooding, north Whatcom County moves into recovery mode,” Salish Current, Dec. 3, 2021.] Both sides of the border were hit harder than at any time in memory, and the Barrowtown pumps were on the verge of being overwhelmed, an outcome that could have recreated Sumas Lake within 48 hours. Assessments in British Columbia after the fact found that many dikes had not been adequately maintained and that the pump station, highways and railroad tracks all needed expensive upgrades. 

With national media in both countries showing videos of devastation, the dormant cross-border political process sputtered back to life in the form of the Nooksack Transboundary Flood Initiative. Officials from British Columbia; Washington state; the Sumas, Leq’a:mel and Matsqui First Nations; Nooksack Indian Tribe and Lummi Nation; the city of Abbotsford; and Whatcom County began meeting in 2022 and signed an agreement (as yet unfunded and without set deadlines) in October 2023. [Ed.: See “U.S., Canada make headway on cross-border Nooksack flood strategy,” Salish Current, Sept. 12, 2023.]

Proposed solutions from the Canadian side included dredging up silt, building a dike along the U.S. border to stop the Nooksack on its passage north, and, on the opposite tack, letting Sumas Lake return to at least part of its former scope. 

In Whatcom County, big-picture solutions involve ways to broaden the river channel to increase its carrying capacity and let its natural flow sluice the burden of silt out toward its broad delta where it does not impede passage. Smaller projects such as dredging out clogged channels, improving monitoring and dike repair are already under way. 

Residents of Everson, Sumas and Lower B.C. are uncomfortably aware, especially during the rainy season, that any projects likely to have a major impact on flood levels could well take as long as the 50-year campaign to drain Sumas Lake. 

As extreme weather becomes more common, everyone in the Fraser and Nooksack flood zones are subject to the law of gravity. Water runs downstream. Without expensive and difficult human intervention, communities and farms will still face flooding, and Sumas Lake is likely to return someday to the Lower Fraser Valley.

— By Lane Morgan

A version of this article appeared in the December 2023 issue of the Journal of the Whatcom County Historical Society.

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