Looking north through the front door of her home on Sumas Avenue in Washington State, Risa Rabang could see the border crossing to Canada, about a mile away on flat, low ground.
“I’ve always said, ‘They put the border in the wrong place and we’re actually in Canada,’” she says.
The community of Sumas is both a small town and an international village – a handful of farms, homes, and businesses with a seemingly arbitrary line crossing it on the 49th parallel.
The separation imposed by this dividing line has never been more real to Rabang than on November 15, as she watched boxes of her personal effects, and even her letterbox, being washed away by an unstoppable current of water. rain and flow north.
Since November 14, flooding on both sides of the Canada-U.S. Border has forced thousands of evacuations, caused deadly landslides on highways and resulted in the loss of hundreds of farm animals. The full toll won’t be known until the storms are over – and another atmospheric storm was felt this week.
One of the hardest hit areas has been Abbotsford in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, a town straddling the urban-rural divide that borders the United States. The mighty Fraser River runs through this region, but that river was not the main cause of flooding in Abbotsford this month – it was because of the Nooksack River in Washington state, which overflowed and s’ flowed on the roads up to the Sumas Prairie area in Abbotsford, an agricultural hub region.
The water traveled from the river to Sumas, Washington, before crossing the border. It was then that Rabang’s house filled with four feet of water.
It was then that she knew she couldn’t stay in her house, which she had rented with her husband, Joe, for six years.
“Fifty years of my life have passed towards Canada. Canadians have it all, ”she said at a community meeting in Sumas this week.
“They can also pay my bills, if they want to. ”
While his comment on Canada having all of its stuff sparked laughter and a few cheers at the Whatcom County community meeting, it also struck a chord among the more than 100 attendees at the meeting. One after another, residents of Sumas and surrounding Lynden and Everson stood up to demand answers from representatives of their county and state, wondering what more could have been done to prevent their homes. to be flooded beyond the repair point.
In almost all cases, the questions and concerns revolved around how the water accumulates in the region and flows into the Pacific Ocean.
Efforts on both sides of the border to control the flow of water inevitably affected the community on the other side.
In flooding that began on November 14, an overflowing Nooksack River in Washington triggered a water dam that slowed northeast on roads to Sumas Washington and then to Sumas Prairie, an agricultural region of Abbotsford where a lake was before it was drained in 1924. During the floods, fears that the Barrowtown pump, which drains water from the old lake, would fail, spread from Abbotsford to American communities.
Rabang said it struck her then: Without having a plan aligned with the Canadians, her community was not only underwater, but also isolated. And people on both sides of the border kept asking: who flooded who first?
“If this border did not exist, we would all be one community. This border divides us, but that does not mean that we are divided – we are all the same, ”she said. “And I would love to see the two governments working together for this community. I think it is a must.
Without an integrated plan between BC and Washington, some residents have taken to blame for the failures of their respective governments for the catastrophic flooding. In a Facebook group called Nooksack Flood Disaster, a Canadian asked how Washington state plans to better protect the Nooksack River from flooding in Canada.
Some Washington state residents have responded with their own accusations: What if Abbotsford’s Barrowtown pump fails, freeing a historic lake all over the region? Wasn’t it Canada that drained Sumas Lake in the first place, needing to rely on a sophisticated but aging system of canals and pumps to keep the area dry?
In the past, British Columbia and Washington have made efforts to break down their environmental management silos.
A Council for Transboundary Environmental Cooperation was established in 1992, and a working group specifically aimed at dealing with flood risks on the Nooksack River was formed a year earlier.
These allowed experts on both sides of the border to jointly formulate recommendations on how to manage shared risks. But the organizations have not been regularly active for at least 10 years. An Abbotsford report on Nooksack flood mitigation said the task force met in 2019 and 2020 to help draft their report and to talk about meeting again each year.
The floods of the past few weeks are quickly becoming a wake-up call for Canadians and Americans to recognize the need for collaboration.
Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun has been in regular contact with Whatcom County officials since the flooding began, saying last week he and Abbotsford town staff were watching the Nooksack ‘like a hawk’ looking for any signs of flooding.
The impact of each jurisdiction on the other is being raised at the highest level, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raising the issue with US President Joe Biden in a meeting last week.
British Columbia officials also recognized the shortcomings of local community-based emergency response plans and said a regional plan to deal with high river levels and potential flooding – including flooding ‘across the border – is necessary.
“This will force the province and the state of Washington to try to find longer term solutions,” Mike Farnworth, Minister of Public Safety for British Columbia, said this week. “Obviously, the focus right now is on solving this. “
Engineers at Kerr Wood Leidal Associates, who wrote a report for Abbotsford a year ago on the potential flood risk of the Nooksack, wrote that dealing with the Nooksack was inherently a cross-border concern, and that the reason for their work to Mapping the flood the risks for Abbotsford was to continue talks with his US counterparts.
“The ultimate goal of this project is to provide sufficient data and background information to the city of Abbotsford, the province and other Canadian officials to discuss with officials in Washington State to consider economic strategies on the Nooksack River and develop a mitigation plan to address the flooding problem, ”they wrote.
Brent Crabtree, a 43-year-old Everson resident, is stunned that his county hasn’t done more to clear debris and gravel from the Nooksack River. He thinks removing some of this debris, like the Vancouver Port Authority for the Fraser River is doing, could help prevent more serious flooding. This is because debris, especially at the bottom of the river, can displace water, requiring less volume of water due to rainstorms before the river is sent to its banks.
“We think maybe if Canada threatens or makes it difficult for our politicians here, maybe it could help do what needs to be done,” he said. “It’s one thing for the state not to maintain the river when it affects us, but when it affects someone else so badly that you would think someone would stand up and do something. “
Brittany Wiazek, a native of Abbotsford whose raised house was spared from the flooding, said she did not blame Americans for the flood disaster.
The disaster caused her to think differently about what constitutes the local community.
“I never paid much attention to the United States. They are there, they are like us, ”she said. “But I feel a little different walking along the border now, I feel like there is a team feeling, because we’ve all been through it together. ”
Wiazek learned just a few months ago about the drying up of Sumas Lake in a college class. It was a project that was vehemently opposed by the Stó: lō who lived and fished off the lake. Now, she says, she can understand why American neighbors and residents of Abbotsford need to come together for comprehensive planning and to listen to First Peoples in the region.
“There’s no point in fighting over who did what, because that won’t help anyone in the future,” she said. “So we need to have conversations about having a lake again. And the other party is to have a conversation on the river (Nooksack).