Spend the millions now to prevent billions of dollars in flood losses.
This was the message delivered by former mayors of Chilliwack, Abbotsford and District of Kent who came together Wednesday in Chilliwack to warn people that this part of the Fraser River is particularly vulnerable to flooding.
“Not enough” is being done, by all levels of government they said, to protect property, utilities and infrastructure from sudden, massive flooding, like that seen recently in Calgary and High River.
Catastrophic flooding in Alberta was the catalyst that prompted the retired mayors to meet over coffee at Jimmy’s restaurant across from City Hall, calling for a coordinated, and multi-stakeholder approach to flood prevention.
“Every year we kind of get lucky,” said John Les, former Chilliwack Mayor, as well as a former MLA and cabinet minister.
“But one of these years, a storm is going to just keep on coming.”
Les was B.C. Solicitor General the last time Chilliwack had a serious flood scare in 2007. The computer modelling indicated a serious problem was on its way. The water was rising and only a big rainstorm abruptly changing directions, and heading north, saved the area from flooding, he said.
But Chilliwack could end up with 26 feet of water again, like it saw during the flood of 1894.
“No one is saying that can’t happen again,” Les added.
The Calgary situation brought all the local challenges to light again.
Some might suggest the stunt was motivated by support for gravel removal from the Fraser, where no gravel has been removed since 2010. Is it still all about gravel?
“That is only part of it,” replied Les.
What is needed is better threat assessment studies, more dike upgrades, and more efforts to protect the bridges, highways, power lines, railway lines, and pipelines that crisscross the region.
Former Abbotsford Mayor George Ferguson said he remembered the devastation of the Flood of 1948, when it took three months just to get the power going again.
“Today if we don’t have power, we’re dead,” he said, adding the pumps wouldn’t work to pull the water away.
They’re not pointing fingers at anybody, they’re being proactive, Les said, because of the incredible destructive power of the mighty Fraser River.
“Calgary should serve as a bit of a wake up call for all of us,” he said.
After former Kent Mayor Sylvia Pranger volunteered in the wake of the Red River flooding in Manitoba, and it changed her profoundly.
“I vowed I would never stop fighting for better flood protection here,” she said.
Pranger remembered moving to Agassiz and watching the fishermen lined up along the river, while at the same time gravel was being hauled out of the river just upstream.
Former Chilliwack Mayor Clint Hames said it is the special morphology of the Fraser River at Chilliwack where the river narrows and the big rocks drop off, heading into the Gravel Reach, that makes the area more vulnerable. Every year an estimated 230,000 cubic metres of gravel wash downriver and get deposited in the area.
“We are more at risk than say, Surrey,” Hames said.
Gravel removal can be done right on the Fraser, at the right times and in the right locations, he said. There’s no reason why the Fraser can’t have a gravel management program, like the one on the Vedder River, Hames added.
Ultimately what form of collective action can be taken to avert disaster is not yet known, but the former mayors said they are willing to help the effort in any way they can.
City of Chilliwack lobbies the province every year for flood mitigation funding, and makes $400,000 contributions annually when other governments chip in. Chilliwack has spent about $9 million on dike upgrades, along with senior levels of government, in the past 10 years, covering 20 km or close to half of the diking system. Another $2.3 million was recently approved for dike work on Young Road north, and city staff keep on top of a flood response plan, and an emergency dike upgrades plan.
Almost half of the Fraser River dike system in Chilliwack has been upgraded to protect against a 1 in 500 year flood event (eg. 1894 flood of record), and the remaining sections offer protection up to about a 1 in 200 year event (eg. 1948 flood, second largest on record).
Part of the challenge is that the provincial flood protection program is underfunded, does not cover engineering studies, and can’t cover all the flood protection projects required across B.C.
The former politicians are not being critical of current local government leaders.
“Rather, we want to support them,” Les said.
“Little, if anything, is done most years to manage the river. Some go so far as to say it should be left alone,” said Les, referring to the anti-gravel removal movement of conservationists espoused in the book, Sturgeon Reach. “That type of thinking will ultimately lead to disaster. As former Mayors we want to continue to lend our support to an active flood prevention program. If the Fraser were to jump its banks, the consequences would be too horrible to contemplate.”