The United States has rejected British Columbia’s demands to consolidate the seawall for $ 29 million. Now flood damage will reach $ 1 billion – .

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The United States has rejected British Columbia’s demands to consolidate the seawall for $ 29 million. Now flood damage will reach $ 1 billion – .


Sandboxes are placed across the road next to a wall of sandbags along the rail tracks to form a temporary dike in the village of Huntingdon area in Abbotsford, British Columbia, the November 28, 2021. An evacuation order has been issued for the village of Huntingdon due to the danger to life from potential flooding of the Nooksack River across the Canada-US border in Washington.DARRYL DYCK / The Canadian Press

For most of the year, the sediment-laden waters of the Nooksack River slip unnoticed behind the tree-lined banks that keep it from spilling into northern Washington state.

But every now and then, when the rain is heavy or the snow melts quickly, the river turns into a churn, bounding over its banks near the town of Everson and spilling out through dairy barns and blueberries. . fields on a route for the lowlands to the north, in another country: Canada. When the Nooksack overflowed in mid-November, floodwaters caused damage estimated at $ 1 billion in the Abbotsford, British Columbia area.

The flooding that devastated Abbotsford farmers and homeowners was the product of record rainfall and numerous failures by Canadian leaders to adequately prepare, including a lack of maintenance of major dike systems in British Columbia.

But they also mark the most serious consequence of a long-standing breakdown in international cooperation around the Nooksack, which normally crosses only the United States, but whose floodwaters pose a particular threat to Canada.

To prevent the Nooksack from being flooded at Everson, which is 9.5 kilometers from the Canadian border, the estimated cost would be considerably less than that billion dollar damage bill: only $ 29 million to install a dike extension. Build that, and structural and agricultural damage in the Abbotsford area in the worst possible flooding would be reduced by more than $ 500 million, according to a flood mitigation plan delivered to the city of Abbotsford last year.

The price tag for this Nooksack dike work is less than a tenth the cost of flood prevention alternatives on the Canadian side, which include raising dikes and digging a runoff channel through a mountain. And tackling the problem on the American side would offer “the greatest benefit if you consider only the damage on the Canadian side,” the report said.

But flood planners in the United States have made no study of such an option. “We weren’t there yet,” said Dave Radabaugh, coordinator of the Washington National Flood Insurance Program, in an interview.

And despite years of anger at the inability to solve a major cross-border problem, there has never been a formal call to involve a century-old US-Canadian commission designed specifically to draft solutions to such problems.

British Columbia politicians and engineers pleaded with Washington State to do something against the Nooksack. Over 30 years ago, they created an international task force on the Nooksack River. They went to the Pentagon to make their case. They demanded that the Nooksack be dredged up and tried to shame the public for pressure. “The Americans haven’t touched a stick or a rock in this river since the 1990 flood,” Abbotsford Mayor George Ferguson said in 1992.

Three decades later, the Nooksack, by design, continues to flood at Everson, dumping water that ends up in Canada.

On the Washington side, there has been a reluctance to spend money to benefit Canada, said Ron Henry, a retired river engineering specialist from British Columbia who served as the task force’s first co-chair. Nooksack.

“It has been a pretty frustrating process over the years,” he said.

The international disconnect is shared: Canadian computer models designed to predict increasing extreme precipitation are blind south of the border. They provide data on British Columbia, but nothing on what might come into the province from elsewhere.

On the American side, Mr. Radabaugh’s own work is also bounded by the 49th parallel. “I’m stopping at Sumas,” he said, referring to the small Washington border town that the Nooksack floodwaters pass through before arriving in the Abbotsford area, where they seep into. the drained lake now called Sumas Prairie. “There is always a tendency, I think – and it is true for all of us – to look at our local conditions,” he added, although “that does not prevent us from working together. And we have to do it.

In any river, a change in one location has effects elsewhere – and higher banks at Everson could well create more flooding downstream, where the Nooksack passes through valuable farm and native land. The Abbotsford report acknowledges this, saying that “more analytical work is needed on the US side to provide the overall benefit-cost ratio.”

“We’re still looking at it and sorting out the options,” Radabaugh said. The Nooksack is home to chinook salmon, which is protected by US law as an endangered species. “It’s really not just an economic analysis for us,” Radabaugh said.

In the late 1980s, planners in Washington concluded that the changes to the river were not worth the cost, but their analysis did not examine the benefits the changes could bring to Canada.

In 1990, the last time the Nooksack flooded Canada, water shut the Trans-Canada Highway for 26 hours and both sides promised changes. In Washington state, Whatcom County has said it will pay for education. The US Congress also ordered a report on the river basin. Prompted by Canada, federal, state and provincial officials agreed to the creation of the international Nooksack task force, which issued recommendations in 1992. These included better management of the floodplains and the creation of a comprehensive floodplain plan. reduction of flood damage.

In 1997, the Nooksack nearly flooded its shores again. Later that year, British Columbia MPP Mike de Jong visited the Pentagon for a meeting with the head of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Mr. de Jong was told that the Corps was considering actions that “would greatly reduce the likelihood of repeated flooding,” he said.

The Army Corps has reinforced some dikes in the area and the United States Geological Survey has added river monitoring, including a gauge at Everson. Environment Canada has agreed to broadcast flood warnings in the United States on its radio broadcasts. “But the events of the past two weeks confirm that there is clearly a lot more to do,” said de Jong.

There is one option that has not been used: the International Joint Commission, an American-Canadian body, established by a treaty of 1909, which studies solutions to transboundary water problems when mandated to do so by federal governments. The IJC was used after other disasters, such as the Red River floods in 1997. But despite informal inquiries from British Columbia in the early 1990s, it “never received instruction from governments. of Canada and the United States to engage in the Nooksack- The flood problem in Sumas, ”said Paul Allen, director of the commission.

The Government of British Columbia has confirmed that it has not requested the participation of the IJC.

While the IJC’s recommendations are not binding, the commission can suggest ways to resolve thorny issues, including country-to-country payment for construction or compensation. But British Columbia was reluctant to use the IJC following a 1988 report that led to the cancellation of the Sage Creek coal mine on the Flathead River, said Ralph Pentland, former Canadian federal planning director. and water management. Since then, “they have been trying to avoid the IJC, which is a mistake – a big mistake – for the province and the people of British Columbia,” he said.

The Nooksack Task Force was formed as an alternative to the IJC at a time when British Columbia and Washington were seeking local solutions to cross-border issues. But the task force has not met for much of the past decade.

Had the IJC been used on the Nooksack, its recommendations “might have been able to prevent some of this” flooding, said Murray Clamen, a McGill University scholar who worked at the IJC for over 30 years, including as secretary of the Canadian section.

“The IJC is there as a tool,” he said. “It can be used. “

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