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A washed out portion of the former Highway 8 is seen along the Nicola River near Spences Bridge, B.C., on Nov. 9, 2022.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

One of the B.C. communities devastated by catastrophic flooding in 2021 says it is finally ready to rebuild its flood protection system, with just one remaining hitch: The province has balked at funding the purchase of private property where the new dikes are meant to be built.

It’s been more than two years since a series of atmospheric rivers washed over the province, causing billions of dollars in damage to highways, railways and bridges, as well as homes, businesses and farms. But less than half of the promised $3.4-billion in disaster relief from Ottawa has been paid to B.C., and the province in turn is still in the process of committing cash, through its Disaster Financial Assistance program, to rebuild communities.

In Merritt, where three 50-year-old dikes along the Coldwater River were torn away in the November, 2021 storms, some 600 homes were damaged by flooding, including some trailer homes that were washed away.

Today, the risk is higher than ever. Emergency dikes installed after the storms have been damaged by subsequent high water events, and Sean Strang, Merritt’s director of flood recovery and mitigation, says there are more than 1,200 homes that are currently deemed to be at risk of flooding.

The city has spent the past two years consulting with the community about what flood protection should look like. It has produced environmental studies, return-on-investment reports and engineering plans for new dikes. It has secured the approval of local First Nations, and it has commitments from Ottawa and the province for $100-million for the various components of the project.

When the B.C. budget was tabled last month, Merritt city council hoped to see the last item – $21.7-million to buy out private property – but it wasn’t there. Mr. Strang said nothing can happen until that’s secured.

“This project is 100-per-cent shovel-ready. We’ve checked off every single box with the province,” he said Tuesday. “But we don’t have anywhere to build the dikes right now. It needs to be wider, and set back from the river in order to meet modern dikes standards, in order to be approved. We have a whole bunch of money to build the dike and no land to build it on.”

Bowinn Ma, B.C.’s Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, was not available for comment. In a written statement, she said progress is being made.

“My ministry has been working closely with Merritt and other communities impacted by the 2021 atmospheric river event to strengthen flood mitigation and recover from this devastating event. Several resiliency and recovery projects are already complete or underway, with more on the way.”

Ms. Ma did not say if there is money in her budget this year for purchasing private property: “Staff from the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship and my ministry have a meeting with city officials later this month to explore the next steps.”

Across the province, reconstruction of new flood protection systems, designed with increasingly extreme weather due to climate change, has been especially complex. Dike failures also occurred in Abbotsford and Princeton, causing significant damage. All three communities have had to develop new mitigation plans to deal with flood hazards because in B.C., local governments are responsible for maintenance, repairs, and upgrades to flood protection structures.

Abbotsford, which has the largest tax base of the three communities, has led the pack in repairs, but even there, the work is not complete. The Sumas dike breached in two places, and permanent repairs have been made to one site, while repairs to the other still await design approval.

In February, the provincial government promised $76.6-million to help pay for upgrades to Abbotsford’s pump station, which was nearly overwhelmed during the flood.

The town of Princeton, meanwhile, is hosting a public meeting on March 14 to discuss flood mitigation options that are being considered by the town’s council. Two dikes were breached in November 2021, submerging much of the town, and the community today is still counting on emergency dike repairs for protection.

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