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A motorist drives on a service road along the closed Trans-Canada Highway as floodwaters fill the ditches beside the highway and farmland in Abbotsford, B.C., on Dec. 1, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The city of Abbotsford’s proposed new flood protection measures would create new floodways where farms now stand.

Some farmers would be offered buyouts, and only flood-resistant crops would be allowed in parts of the rich agricultural lands of the Sumas Prairie.

The city’s engineering department presented council on Monday with four options to prevent a repeat of last November’s devastating floods. In addition to the tough decisions on which farms would be displaced, the city is looking to Ottawa and B.C. for as much as $2.8-billion to address just one part of its flood protection systems.

Mayor Henry Braun said it is too early to say which properties would be designated as floodway lands. “Once a plan has been selected, further studies will be completed to determine where exactly the different mitigation measures will go, and it’s not until that point that individual properties will begin to be identified.”

The cheapest of the four options would cost more than $200-million, and would complete basic repairs to the flood protections that were damaged last November. The repairs would not meet current provincial standards, and owners of farmland in areas that would be designated as floodways or flood storage would be compensated by the city, to prevent reconstruction in high-risk areas.

The highway that disappeared

The province requires dikes to be built to withstand a 1-in-200-years event, with increased weather extremes due to climate change factored in. However, most dikes in B.C. do not fully meet those standards.

Only two of the plans presented to council would meet provincial standards, and both would cost more than $2-billion. The most expensive proposal includes the construction of new dikes and pump stations. It would also require a stretch of Highway 1 and adjoining railways to be built up above the floodplain. Fewer farmers and landowners would be displaced, however, as more land would be protected.

The proposed upgrades focus on the floods of last November, when the Nooksack River in Washington State overflowed and breached its dike, sending floodwaters across Abbotsford’s Sumas Prairie. The flooding forced the evacuation of more than 1,100 properties, shut down the city’s primary water source, led to the deaths of thousands of farm animals, and temporarily closed Highway 1.

Mr. Braun told the council meeting the options will be discussed with residents, First Nations communities, and the senior levels of government that he said will be needed to fund any of the possible fixes. But there is an urgent need to move ahead quickly.

“Next November is closer than we think,” he said. He added that both the province and the federal government have been warned that the needed repairs will likely be in the billions of dollars. “They are well prepared for these numbers.”

Ottawa has committed to transfer at least $5-billion to B.C. under its Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements for flood relief, but Abbotsford is just one of several communities that face significant repair bills.

The proposed flood mitigation options presented on Monday do not mention repairs needed for the Matsqui dike protection system that faces the Fraser River. The flood protection system in Sumas Prairie is designed to protect against flood risks from the Fraser River freshet in the spring, and Nooksack River overflow in the fall. This system includes dikes on the Sumas River and the Vedder canal, as well as the Barrowtown Pump Station.

Cost of rebuilding B.C. after flooding nears $9-billion

In a report to city council, Rob Isaac, the general manager for engineering, said landowners would be “made whole” if their land is deemed to be in the floodway, and covenants would be placed on those lands to prohibit building. He did not explain what the compensation would be.

He added that none of the options can move forward without funding from B.C. and Ottawa.

B.C. Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth told reporters he won’t comment on the different options until the city completes its consultations.

“The consultation needs to take place because different options have different impacts on different parts of the community. And so that’s the work that needs to be done at this time. And then we will be able to work with the city of Abbotsford,” he said.

He added that he expects Washington State will be part of the solution, noting that leaders from the state and British Columbia reached an agreement in March to work together on redeveloping a flood prevention plan for the Nooksack River.

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