Nov. 25, 2021

Why the B.C. floods are not a climate change issue

The following was written by Terence Corcoran in the Financial Post. It is so on target that I repost it here.

by Terence Corcoran 
Financial Post

B.C. historian Chad Reimer’s 2018 book, Before We Lost the Lake: A Natural and Human History of Sumas Valley, makes it abundantly clear that the massive flooding that has devastated one of Canada’s most important farm and transportation regions should have come as no surprise.

Among the final words in Reimer’s remarkable and detailed history of the flooded British Columbia geography — now embedded in the minds of Canadians is a sign of catastrophic climate change — is a warning. Reimer concludes that the complacency running through Abbotsford and other communities in the Sumas area prior to last week’s floods has been unfounded. “This sense of security is faulty,” said Reimer in 2018.

Before We Lost the Lake is filled with evidence of the seemingly futile hundred-year human struggle to tame Sumas Lake by draining it of water and turning it into fertile prairie, a never-ending battle to build and re-build dikes and infrastructure in the face of recurring flood episodes of varying magnitudes going back centuries. Sumas and areas south of the United States border have experienced so-called 100-year floods in 1908-1909 and 1932. Floods ranked as 35-year events occurred in 1945, 1949,1955,1975, and 1990. At least a dozen others are on the record.

Reimer reports that when the first Sumas Lake dike and drainage systems were proposed by a Seattle company around 1909 and completed in June of 1924, the Vancouver Province declared “Sumas Lake is no more” and the Chilliwack Progress rejoiced: “Sumas Lake is now dry.”

Despite recurring floods over the past century, the political belief that the flood risk had been or soon could be brought under control prevailed. It has long proved to be a false hope, accompanied by persistent warnings from engineers and others.

Reimer accepts that climate change poses current and future risks, but he holds another, perhaps deeper, perspective. Maybe the whole lake drainage project — which approaches its 100th anniversary — is a great human error. In an interview, Reimer portrayed Sumas as a case of human overreach based on the belief that nature can be conquered. “We thought we solved the problem of the flooding with the draining of the lake and the diking, but we didn’t.”

Warnings of this failure abound. Reimer ends his book with a reference to a 1994 study from the Fraser Basin Management Program that was released on the anniversary of a major 1894 flood. It concluded that “there is a one-in-three chance that a flood at least as big will occur by the year 2045 — and it may even be bigger.”

The title of another report on the 1994 Task Force Review of the Fraser River Flood Control Program was titled “Getting ready for the big one!: The next big Fraser River flood.” The archive of such warnings and reports run to the hundreds of items over decades, from academics, consultants, panels, agencies, boards, the media. A 2007 Vancouver Province series about B.C.’s flood threats warned of “hell to pay” if this river floods again.

In November last year, consulting engineers issued a revised final report to the City of Abbotsford on a flood mitigation plan. The process of coming up with a plan began with the 1990 flood, described as a major 35-year event, but after almost 35 years of planning — and at least 24 engineering studies and countless agency reports — the three levels of government responsible for mitigating flood risk had failed to come up with a plan.

The whole project of preparing for floods appears to have been handed off to an endless procession of agencies and study panels endlessly bogged down in stakeholder issues and a multitude of interests. The current effort, now almost a decade in the making, is the Fraser Basin Council’s Lower Mainland Flood Management Strategy. It’s third and presumably final “taking action” report is scheduled for release in March, 2022. The strategy, it said, “will include a broad, holistic vision” and a series of recommendations to improve ”understanding of flood risk, reducing flood risk and increasing resilience.”

Plans for the March release are now presumably on hold and the report subject to massive rewrite.

As governments fiddled and faddled, the region continued to expand. Down in Sumas prairie the sense of security Reimer warned about is evident in communities such as Abbotsford, at the centre of the flood risk and partially underwater over much of the past two weeks. In 2016 Abbotsford launched major plans to “rethink” the city’s prospects and increase its population from 140,000 to 200,000. By 2019, the town’s population had hit 150,000 and seemed set to hit 200,000 by 2038, according to one report.

Flood risks were downplayed, even though the city had commissioned a river overflow flood damage mitigation plan, funded by the province and Ottawa, which outlined the costs of rebuilding existing flood protection infrastructure. The final engineering report for the city’s Noonsack River Overflow Flood Mitigation Plan, released a year-ago this week, looked at options that would cover 100-year and 200-year flood risks such as the floods now ravaging the region. The preferred options involved capital costs alone of $339-million and $580 million. Other costs would send the dollar totals higher.

So almost 35 years since the last 35-year scale flood in 1990, essentially nothing substantial had been done to protect the Sumas Prairie from the major event that Abbotsford and other communities all knew — or should have known — were inevitable, even without climate change. Climate change may have increased the risk, but the warnings were clear that the Sumas Valley and Fraser River areas would soon be hit again regardless of whether global warming was having an impact.

Instead of preparing for the floods, all levels of government, but especially the province of British Columbia along with Ottawa, spent most of the last few decades revving up the long-range aspects of climate change alarm. Instead of promoting the urgency to prepare for the well-understood flood risks, they hyped the long-run but uncertain risks and speculative events forecast for 80 to 100 years in the future.

To pick one example, in the name of fighting climate change the province introduced a carbon tax in 2008 that has generated revenues of $2-billion. The alleged objective of curbing B.C. carbon emissions is to save the planet in decades to come, and it is safe to say that — after rebates and other tax tricks — little of the money was used to support the need for a $500-millon capital investment to protect the Sumas Prairie.

In Ottawa, where there is talk of trillion dollar schemes to reduce fossil fuel use to net-zero, bury carbon emissions and subsidize electric cars, the flood risk topic has been largely non-existent — until this week’s Speech from the Throne. Instead of funding $500-million to protect a B.C. region from floods, Ottawa is lavishing billions on industries to supposedly clean up their carbon emissions. Ontario’s Algoma Steel, which recently went public, is set to receive $420-million in federal aid to phase out coal. Prime Minister Trudeau was on hand to announce the net-zero aspect of the subsidy.

Today, however, the only economy into net zero territory is the B.C. flood zone.

What is to be done? Historian Chad Reimer says the takeaway from Before We Lost the Lake is that the draining of Sumas Lake was a human mistake. 

The problem posed by nature had not been resolved by the human flood control machine put in place. “We have a choice. Do we build a more expensive machine, even though history has told us that at some point it’s going to fail? Or do we work around natural things. That really is the choice.”

Whether Reimer’s conclusion is correct or not, the fact remains that creating the Sumas prairie has emerged as a human mistake. The question now is: How can Sumas Lake be fixed?


The Sumas risk of the ‘perfect flood’

Excerpted from “Before We Lost the Lake: A Natural and Human History of Sumas Valley,” by Chad Reimer, published in 2018 by Caitlin Press, Qualicum Beach.


The issue of Semá:th (First Nation) rights and compensation is further complicated by the historical status of the lake bed itself. When the Sumas reserves were set up, this was not dry land but water, and thus reverted to the Crown. Sumas Lake and valley fell within the Railway Belt, so the Crown in this case was the federal government, which then and now is constitutionally obligated to protect the interests of Native people.

The federal government permitted the provincial government to destroy a lake under federal jurisdiction; then, in 1923, Ottawa sold the exposed lake bed to Victoria for $1. The Semá:th were never consulted, and Indian Affairs did nothing to protect the band’s interests. From the historical perspective at least — and quite possibly in legal terms — the federal government did not fulfill its obligations.

The recent claims of the Semá:th band show us that the story of Sumas Lake is not over, that we are still living with its presence. The waters themselves tell us this as well, for the environmental conditions that created and sustained the lake are still there. 

Twice each year, spring and winter, the waters of the Sumas and Fraser River watersheds try to return to their natural place on the Sumas Valley floor. The machinery and technology used to keep these at bay have become more effective with each passing decade, and the flood threat has receded in the local imagination.

This sense of security is faulty. 

A study released on the anniversary of the 1894 flood concluded that there is a one-in-three chance that a flood at least as big will occur by the year 2045 — and it may even be bigger. The 1894 flood was not the perfect storm of legend; it would have been higher if the Fraser and Thompson Rivers had peaked at exactly the same time, rather than a few days apart. 

All bets will be off if and when the perfect flood does happen, for not even the experts can predict whether the defences guarding the Sumas and Fraser valleys will stand firm.