November 18, 2021

Wind, Rain, Rivers & Landslides: How Do We Make Room For Water?

Here we are in a climate emergency: an unprecedented “atmospheric river” carrying over 160 cm of rain to parts of Metro Vancouver, that water causing landslides, flooding and threatening to breach dikes.


Unless you can fly or boat out, water and landslides have  cutting off access to the rest of Canada by rail and road. Oh yes: you may be able to access certain parts of B.C. by going through the American border which would require a preclearance Covid test in the 150 dollar range to go into the US and back in Canada. However if you are trying to get home, Canadian Border Services Agency will let you through without the test or the quarantine requirement.

As reported earlier this year by Alex Migdal with CBC, the World Meteorological Organization says that since industrialization in the 1800’s, global temperature has increased 1.2 degrees celsius. But in Canada,  warming is twice as fast, with “the highest rates occurring in the North, the Prairies and northern British Columbia. And temperatures in the Arctic are increasing three times the global rate. “

I had just obtained a copy of “Nature’s Fury” that documented the “inside story of the disastrous B.C. Floods”  that occurred May to June 1948. That year a huge amount of snow and very warm spring temperatures combined to produce snow melts that flooded the Fraser River, with Abbotsford, Chilliwack and Mission inundated by water.

The CBC video below outlines the flood and was produced over seven decades ago. At that time nature was to be conquered and suppressed according to the commentary.

But there is another fact, and that is about land reclamation: Bill Gill of the Vancouver Sun wrote in 1948 that the Vedder Canal dike, first built in the early 1920’s at a cost of five million dollars channelled the Vedder River into the Sumas and the Fraser, reclaiming 10,000 acres of “fertile alluvial soil which was covered by shallow Lake Sumas. Around the lake another 20,000 swampy acres became lush dairly lands.”  

Lake Sumas was also a very important lake to the First Nations in Sumas, and was drained and reclaimed without their consent.  That is now the subject of a land claim.

On May 26 1948 the  town of Yarrow divided the  Vedder Canal dike into 35 sections with three men allocated to do eight hour shifts at each location in sandbagging, or moving the sand to the dike. People who did not show up to a shift were fined. The Royal Canadian Navy brought in “four landing craft, a pinnace and a cutter” to back up the workers on the dike. On June 10 a second evacuation alert was issued, but thankfully the waters receded. This week volunteers have also come out to work on the dike and maintain it.

The Dutch engineers that assisted with the rebuilding of the New Orleans canals point out that you cannot divert water and expect it to stay. And they should know, with  50 percent of their coastline with big  banks of undeveloped, untarnished dunes hugging the coastline and 25 percent of the country  below sea level. You can see a video of the  Dutch “Room for the River” project here.

A  horrendous flood in 1953 resulting from a storm surge along the North Sea killed 1,800 people. From that disaster the country developed a comprehensive management system of “polders”, which are reclaimed land parcels that would normally be below the sea. Instead of physical man made dikes protected and bolstered dunes double as water protection for communities and wonderful natural bird habitat.

The expertise of the Dutch water specialists should be considered as we go forward with rebuilding in the Sumas “Lake” and in our own immediate back yard in Vancouver.

Sustainability specialist with the City of Vancouver Andrea Danyluk in this CBC interview said that the city is expecting  “about 50 centimetres of sea level rise by 2050 and then about 1 to 1.4 metres of sea level rise by 2100, and there’ll be more sea level rise coming, perhaps 200 centimetres, by 2200″.

In some people’s lifetime, Ms. Danyluk says that South West Marine Drive will be a shoreline. The new St. Paul’s Hospital is also being built on a  future “muddy tidal flat”. The foundation must be dug down  to solid firm clay.  Directly on the Fraser River  a developer is trying to redevelop the historic Celtic Shipyards site  for another residential  subdivision on floodplain at  the foot of Balaclava Street  in Southlands.

Noted Vancouver Sun  journalist Daphne Bramham writes that we are “woefully unprepared” for climate change and rising sea levels, with homes and infrastructure being built on floodplains.

Ms. Bramham writes: “At 1.5 metres of sea level rise, parts of Granville Island would be under water. At three metres, a large portion of Senakw would be at least partly under water — it’s at the south end of the Burrard Bridge where the Squamish First Nation and Westbank propose to build 6,000 housing units…Although Vancouver politicians aspire to making it one of the world’s greenest cities, it seems on track to become one of the bluest, with close to 250,000 people living within one metre of sea level.”

If these massive changes in sea rise and flooding  are happening, how do we plan to be more resilient? And how do we incorporate water management into our projects being built today that will be with us in thirty to eighty years?

The YouTube video below shows the current  flooding in Abbotsford and east in the Sumas Prairie, where shallow Lake Sumas used to exist before being drained for agriculture.




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