Rebuild or retreat? B.C. communities face tough choices after catastrophic floods

One B.C. city has made the hard decision to uproot a neighbourhood because it's at high risk of flooding again and again. Now, others are being forced to consider what's called "managed retreat" after the catastrophic flooding in November that destroyed highways and at one point had 20,000 people out of their homes.

Abbotsford to announce its proposed plan for future flood mitigation on Monday

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The flowers at Martin O'Brien's former home in Grand Forks, B.C., are blooming, though no one lives there anymore to tend them.

The whole neighbourhood is being emptied, down to fire hydrants and every last piece of pipe above and below ground. Some houses have been moved, some picked apart by salvagers, and others, like O'Brien's, are slated to be torn down.

The 71-year-old has stopped by to save some pansies.

"My pansies are gorgeous and tulips opening already," he said, digging them out and putting them in a pot for the small balcony of the new apartment he found in senior's housing a few minutes away.

O'Brien's home was one of close to 90 properties purchased or expropriated by the city after May 2018 floods that inundated the North Ruckle neighbourhood and most of downtown Grand Forks in B.C.'s southern Interior.

After years of resisting, he was one of the last to leave, forced out in February when the city expropriated his property.

Rather than rebuild or protect the neighbourhood from future flooding, Grand Forks chose a path that's likely to become more common as sea levels rise and weather gets more extreme due to climate change.

It's called "managed retreat," and it means the people, their neighbourhood and all the dreams they had for the land have to go — returning the area to a natural floodplain.

"It was kind of a shock to the whole neighbourhood to find that we were to be eliminated," O'Brien said, sitting on the porch of his former home.

"I'd been here 30 years, but there were some who had been here their whole lifetime."

He is staying sanguine about the situation, but the process has been painful in Grand Forks.

Now, other B.C. cities — including Abbotsford, which is set to announce its plan Monday — are being forced to consider managed retreat as they recover from last November's extreme flooding and mudslides, and prepare for what's to come.

'A feeling of mourning'

As climate change threatens residents and infrastructure, more people will be forced to relocate. A 2019 study published in Nature estimated that, without urgent emissions cuts, some 300 million people are vulnerable to rising sea waters globally.

In Canada, managed retreat has been used before in places where the chance of recurrent flooding is so high it was considered the best option, such as HIgh River, Alta., and Gatineau, Que.

In Grand Forks, Mayor Brian Taylor says when the waters receded, the problems did not.

"We really had to have a solution that was long term, that shoring up a dike here and there or changing a few things really didn't give us that security as a community going into this new climate uncertainty that we needed," he said.

They decided to eliminate the neighbourhood to give room for the nearby Kettle and Granby rivers to overflow and build new diking systems to protect the downtown and other areas.

The idea was controversial and led to protests, especially when residents were told the compensation they would receive would be based on the post-flood value of their properties.

The city eventually bumped up compensation to residents, to lessen the blow, though it had to run a deficit to do so.

Beyond the money, Taylor said, it was a painful process for friends and neighbours to suffer through.

"That was a community. That was a group of people who knew each other, supported each other," he said standing on the banks of the Kettle River, next to one of the boarded-up homes.

"There's a feeling of mourning going on."

O'Brien said that grief is compounded by the way the uprooting of the neighbourhood has been executed, with not enough in the way of alternate housing and financial, legal and even trauma support. It left many feeling like just a number, he said.

"They talked about resiliency as if it was something that was, like, a common denominator. Everybody had it, and everybody had the same amount. That isn't the case," he said.

He hopes there are lessons to be learned from his community, whose flood mitigation plan is seen by some as a precedent in the province.

Grand Forks has recently been fielding calls from other cities devastated by last November's flooding and mudslides, which destroyed highways and saw up to 20,000 people forced from their homes.

Abbotsford considering managed retreat

In Abbotsford, 70 kilometres east of Vancouver in the Fraser Valley, that November flooding blocked Highway 1 and covered the Sumas Prairie, lush farmland that produces half of the province's milk, eggs and dairy.

Abbotsford's mayor said repairs and improvements made after last year's floods leave residents better protected than they were before, but more needs to be done, especially when you factor in climate change.

"We could experience this again in November, and that is a concern, a big concern, which is why we are pushing so hard to develop that plan," said Henry Braun.

It's all complicated by the fact that much of the Sumas Prairie was once a lake, until it was drained in the 1920s to create some of the most valuable farmland in the province. A series of dikes and a pump station work day and night to keep the lake out.

The city consulted with residents on four options that ranged from $200 million to $2.8 billion:

  • Option 1: Enhancements to pump station and repairs of dike damaged in November.
  • Option 2: All of the above, plus an additional pump station on the Sumas River.
  • Option 3: All of the above, plus expanding the floodway by relocating dikes, which may require the purchase of properties within it and extending dikes along the border.
  • Option 4: All of the above, except a narrower floodway, and three additional pump stations.

On Monday, the city said staff will recommend a mixture of options 2, 3 and 4 — the latter being the one preferred by the most Sumas Prairie residents. The specifics and price tag haven't been released, but it will include diking along the border and four new pump stations.

Options 3 and 4, which will be part of the proposed plan, include the possibility of managed retreat with the buyout of certain properties. The city isn't saying now how many properties could be affected.

"If you're one of those farmers, that falls hard on their ears. I've had some challenging conversations, but our overall function as council is to protect our citizens and the farming community," said Braun. "There's a lot of things that are in play here all at once."

Kuldeep Gill doesn't like what he sees.

"I don't like any idea that the city said," Gill said overlooking his 14 hectare farm. "I don't want somebody to touch my berry to put a lake or something right here. I don't want that."

He bought his property seven years ago and spent millions on a new house. In November, his fields were under a metre of water.

"This is my dream. If I [retire] I want to stay in this peaceful area and my land," he said.

Bring back the lake?

But some are concerned the options considered don't go far enough in giving the rivers room to rise.

Tamsin Lyle, an engineer and consultant on flood management, has studied flooding in the region for more than two decades.

"Options that are currently on the table are very much focussed on the status quo — so doing things we have done for the last 50 years but doing it a bit bigger."

Lyle says she recognizes the urgency, but fears politicians are being pressured to act without considering the larger implications — from fish habitat to the politics of a dike on the U.S. border.

"It might be too fast because we are sort of relying on things that we know have not worked in the past," she said.

"We need to be looking at our large tool box of options."

For her, that includes the question of whether the former Sumas Lake should be allowed to flood Sumas Prairie again.

WATCH | 100 years ago, Sumas Prairie was a lake, and could be again:

The 100-year-old decision that contributed to Abbotsford, B.C., flooding

7 months ago

Duration 2:30

More than 100 years ago, a lake outside what is now the Abbotsford, B.C., area was drained to create lucrative farmland. Many say that decision is a big contributor to the devastating flooding.

Local First Nations also want to see a process that brings everyone to the table.

Tyrone McNeil is chief of the Stó:lō Tribal council, representing 11 First Nations throughout the region.

"At this point, I can't support any of its options, because they are Abbotsford's alone. We need a regional approach to this," he said.

He is also frustrated at what he said is lack of resources among local First Nations to even properly evaluate proposals. An issue he says could hold up any plans with court challenges over a lack of proper consultation.

He also is part of a group of experts and non-governmental organizations lobbying to see flood management handled differently.

"Nobody should be alone in any of this," he said.

"We need to have conversations now to figure things out for some folks. Some will be time consuming. But we need to start those conversations. How are we adapting to climate change?

"If we choose not to adapt? Well, you know, I think we're in a lot of trouble."

To those who think Abbotsford should go further, the mayor says, for now, he has to put the community first.

"Local government has a responsibility to protect our infrastructure, our community and our residents," he said.

"If people want to start talking about letting the lake come back, that's a discussion at a much higher level and pay grade than I have. That is our federal government and our province."

All difficult discussions. The federal government is awaiting a report in the coming weeks from a task force set to look at the issue of flood relocation across the country.

In Grand Forks, those discussion have already happened.

The neighbourhood is slowly being erased. Once Martin O'Brien's home and all the others are dismantled, the area will be replaced with green space with walking trails and surrounded by a new dike, all available for the community to use when it isn't under water.

They are still a couple years away from completion.

Martin O'Brien, though, is thinking of those who may face a fate similar to his.

"When the sea level at Vancouver rises and you have to evacuate many multi-storey apartment buildings or something, or when the decisions are made about how you do your managed retreat, who's going to get left behind?"

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