Dikes in the Fraser Valley and into the Thompson-Nicola areas of B.C. were in need of repairs ahead of the devastating 2021 floods – and a new report claims that provincial and municipal officials knew about these needs for years prior to the ferocious weather event.
When the torrential rains swept through southwestern B.C. that November, the rivers that wind through Merritt quickly swelled and broke through the city’s dikes, pouring into people’s homes, cars and businesses. A bridge collapsed, roads flooded and the local wastewater treatment plant abruptly failed, forcing the community’s 7,100 residents to evacuate in the dead of the night.
Damage was later estimated at $150 million.
Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the think-tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and reviewed by Black Press Media, show Merritt and the provincial government were told about issues with the dikes for at least four years leading up to 2021’s atmospheric river.
Under B.C.’s Dike Maintenance Act, oversight and upkeep is up to local authorities, but they are required to submit annual reports to a provincial dike inspector and that inspector has the power to order an authority to repair, replace or remove a dike.
The FOI request, which turned up more than 5,000 pages of documents, includes all annual dike reports made between 2017 and 2021 for Merritt, Abbotsford, Princeton, Richmond and Chilliwack, as well as any response or communication about them by the provincial dike inspector or their staff.
While the request produced thousands of pages that detailed issues with the communities’ dikes, it only revealed a single provincial document in response: an email between government employees sent after the 2021 floods that noted Princeton hadn’t been submitting dike reports every year, and that the reports that did exist showed the dikes weren’t “built to withstand (a) 200+ year event,” which was exactly what happened in 2021.
Nowhere in the 5,000-plus pages was an order from the provincial dike inspector asking any of the authorities to make improvements to their flood infrastructure.
“So the problems just continued to remain unaddressed over that time period,” said CCPA resource policy analyst Ben Parfitt, who made the FOI request.
The most striking example is in Merritt.
Beginning in 2018, a dams engineer hired by the city identified dozens of issues with their dikes. They wrote that large cottonwood trees had “severely compromised the integrity of the dike structure,” that sections of river embankments had been seriously eroded, and that one dike had been “severely modified by unauthorized excavation and soil stock piling.” The engineer marked these and many others as a high priority, meaning they should be fixed within two years.
Reports completed by the same engineer in subsequent years show they found the same issues remained all the way until May 2021, when they completed the last inspection before the November atmospheric river. In that final report, the engineer recommended “immediate implementation of maintenance and other activities.”
Parfitt said the question he is left with is why, with so much evidence of the dikes being in a state of deterioration, nothing was done by Merritt or the province.
Numerous lengthy reports from recent years point to under-staffing and under-funding as barriers.
A June 2021 report co-authored by former provincial dike inspector Neil Peters stated that 20 to 40 per cent of local authorities hadn’t been filing regular annual reports in recent years, and up to half of those that were submitted hadn’t been satisfactory. The report said that could be the result of the community not having the funds to hire a professional engineer or not having a staff member with the expertise to do it themselves, among other things.
Tamsin Lyle, an engineer and flood management expert, told Black Press Media some communities don’t complete the reports because they know they don’t have the money to fix any of the issues they may find. Lyle said under-resourcing at the provincial level has exacerbated the problem, with few staff available to review dike reports or provide local authorities with guidance.
In a May 2021 report she authored, Lyle wrote: “The current model for flood risk governance in B.C. is broken.”
She said more money is being thrown around since the 2021 floods but that there’s not a good system in place to ensure communities that need the help most are the ones benefiting. It remains up to local authorities to apply for flood-related grants, and Lyle said smaller and remote communities don’t always have the expertise or resources to do so.
She’s one of numerous voices recommending that the province take over authority of dikes.
“Although there’s an argument that local governments know what’s best for their communities, unless they’re given a much better package of resources to be able to manage them themselves, it just doesn’t make sense,” Lyle said.
Parfitt came to the same conclusion after reviewing the FOI documents, and its something the Union of B.C. Municipalities also requested in a September 2022 resolution. Mayors across B.C. further called on the province to significantly increase funding for flood preparedness and mitigation.
In a statement to Black Press Media, a public affairs official for the forest ministry, Nigel McInnis, said the province is working with partners to develop a flood strategy. A precursory Intentions Paper released last year lists a number of proposed action items, including to “strengthen dike regulatory programs,” but does not provide specifics on what that would look like.
Speaking during a wildfire briefing on Wednesday, Forestry Minister Bruce Ralston said he is reviewing the report and that it is part of a call for action they started hearing some time ago.
“It’s clear that that system – and that became very clear in the atmospheric river in 2021 – doesn’t work.”
-With files from Wolf Depner
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Sept. 13 with comments from Forestry Minister Bruce Ralston.