Protection file

Vaughn Palmer: Sumas flood protection must include deal with Washington state

Opinion: There is no point spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new reinforced dikes in the Fraser Valley if nothing is done to prevent the Nooksack River in Whatcom County from flooding Canada

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VICTORIA – When residents of the Fraser Valley heard sirens blaring across the border in Washington state on Monday, they must have feared the worst.


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This meant that the Nooksack Piver would be inundated on the US side.

But if past practice was any guide, the sirens also meant that the Nooksack overflow would spill across the border into British Columbia.

That’s what he did.

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun on Tuesday accused the Nooksack of floodwaters that threatened to submerge the Barrowtown Pumping Station – itself all that kept Sumas Prairie from becoming its historic predecessor, Sumas Lake.

Two days later, Braun was still worried about the Nooksack surge.

“We are still not pumping close to the amount of water from the system entering the meadow across the border,” he told reporters.

It was always so along this stretch of the border.

The problem stems from what is known as the “overflow corridor,” a naturally downhill stretch of land that stretches from Everson on the US side to Sumas on the border and then into Canada.


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When the Nooksack overflows its shores at Everson, a significant portion of the flow, up to 20%, heads north into British Columbia.

The river overflowed its banks at the overflow corridor 18 times in the 100 years leading up to 1995, according to a historic flood survey published on the Whatcom County website.

Most of these episodes, about one every five years, caused significant damage and disruption on the Canadian side according to the poll.

There have been many more since.

What should have been the turning point came on November 10, 1990, with what became known on the American side as the Veterans Day Flood.

It did 10 times more damage than the usual flooding on the Nooksack, including a lot on the BC side. The estimated $ 25 million bill sparked calls for action on both sides of the border.


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Two years later, British Columbia Premier Mike Harcourt and Washington State Governor Booth Gardner signed an environmental accord that included a commitment to “continued and future collaboration to reduce problems. Nooksack River Flood ”.

In 2012, Premier Christy Clark and Washington Governor Christine Gregoire marked the 20th anniversary of the accord by celebrating progress and setting new environmental and economic goals.

The list of achievements does not mention any progress in cross-border collaboration to reduce flooding problems on the Nooksack.

Judging from the newspaper archives, the flooding problem has worsened in terms of severity and frequency.

Seen from this side of the border, the United States is seen as a barrier to progress.


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Americans are crippled by environmental regulations and jurisdictional issues. They fear that the rise of the Nooksack dikes near the border will only push floodwaters downstream and damage the more densely populated communities near Bellingham.

The reluctance has prompted calls for unilateral action on this side of the border.

Twenty-five years ago Abbotsford Mayor George Ferguson said that if “our neighbors to the south … are not ready to do something, the ultimate solution is to build a dike along the border”.

The notion was raised again this week, by the same feeling of frustration.

But building a dike to push floodwaters back to the border would hardly be seen by Americans as a friendly act.


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In addition, Whatcom County is taking action to upgrade dikes in what it calls the “Working Nooksack River Floodplains” project.

The US $ 6 million project is far from complete, witness what happened this time around.

On the American side, the sumas were half raised, half underwater, Mayor Kyle Christensen told the Seattle Times midweek.

When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee visited Whatcom County on Wednesday, he expressed astonishment at the extent of the damage.

“I was told they had reached unprecedented levels of flooding in some places,” he told the Bellingham Herald. “We have to realize that we are going to face decades of increased flooding in our state of Washington.”

Same as the challenge on this side of the border.

It should provide an opening for the two jurisdictions to resume cross-border cooperation to contain the Nooksack.


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Whatcom County has already done some of the planning and engineering work, including where the river runs along the overflow corridor.

Since British Columbia would benefit from additional protection along this section of the river, it may even offer to help pay for it.

If that sounds outrageous, there is precedent in the Columbia River Treaty of 1964.

British Columbia has agreed to construct a series of storage dams on its portion of the Columbia River to help reduce the threat of flooding in the United States

In return, the United States agreed to help pay for the construction.

U.S. utilities also prepaid British Columbia’s share of the additional value of the electricity that would be produced downstream over the next 30 years.

The initial payments to British Columbia were $ 350 million, or about $ 3 billion in today’s money.

The cost sharing on the Nooksack would likely be on a much smaller scale.

British Columbia, with assistance from Ottawa, will undertake a major dike upgrade along the Fraser River and elsewhere.

It would hardly make sense to spend the billions expected there, to leave the Fraser Valley wide open for the next rise in the Nooksack.



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