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Repaired dikes along the Coldwater River in Merritt, B.C. in June 2022. Flooding in November 2021 covered the entire foreground, destroying the mobile home park on the far left. Eighteen months after flooding, hundreds of people remain displaced and communities scramble to shore up flood protection.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

This week, residents of Merritt, B.C., were anxiously watching the two rivers that wind through their city. Hundreds are still displaced from a flood 18 months ago that forced the entire community to evacuate. Those back in their homes are putting their trust in temporary dike repairs completed in the midst of that emergency.

“We have very weak points, where the flood and the high stream flow damaged areas,” said Mayor Mike Goetz in an interview. The most vulnerable to flooding are those residents living in the trailer parks built right on the edge of the Coldwater River. Some of the modular homes remain unlivable, torn off their foundations when the river swept through on Nov. 15, 2021, sending people fleeing in the middle of the night.

Others have returned, and now, as the province faces another season of floods, they have been told to be ready to evacuate again if the flood protection – piles of rock and a string of rock-filled baskets along the riverbanks installed by the military in November, 2021 – fails. It was not meant to last this long, and “that’s the only thing between them and evacuation, should things go wrong,” Mr. Goetz said.

In the aftermath of the catastrophic floods of late 2021, political leaders from both the provincial and federal governments vowed to do better. They agreed that the existing flood protection structure – which left 161 municipal governments, more than 200 First Nations and overlapping regional governments in charge of identifying vulnerabilities and carrying out repairs – was flawed. There would be funding and structural change to ensure that communities were better protected. But 18 months later, most flood protection structures have not been repaired, much less upgraded.

And this week, the annual freshet, when waterways swell with melted snow and ice, arrived abruptly in B.C., bringing flooding and mudslides, and the threat of worse to come with forecasts of rainstorms on the way.

The provincial government would not say how many of the province’s hundreds of dikes have been inspected since the 2021 storms, which ripped out portions of highways, railways and bridges, and destroyed homes, businesses and farms. The majority of dikes are the responsibility of local authorities, but there are also more than 100 deemed “orphans” that no one is responsible for.

Of the seven dikes known to have failed during the November rainstorms in the communities of Merritt, Abbotsford and Princeton, just one has been fully repaired. Most communities are still working on flood mitigation plans that must account for increasingly extreme weather patterns fostered by climate change.

Merritt has debated a series of options for recovery, including the community making a full retreat from the floodplain. Instead, last November, city council landed on a less costly plan to build a series of dikes, and it is seeking $165-million in flood mitigation funding from other levels of government. That plan calls for a modest amount of planned retreat: The city wants to buy out some homeowners to make way for new flood barriers. Until a decision is made, those residents remain displaced, with an uncertain future.

“We have 37 people that can’t live in their home, can’t sell their property, can’t get on their property and they’re living in limbo at this point,” Mr. Goetz said. “We can’t fix the dikes until we buy out the homes owned by these people, and the municipality simply does not have that kind of money.”

That lack of fiscal capacity at the community level has long been a weak point in B.C.’s flood mitigation work.

Twenty years ago, the provincial government off-loaded responsibility for flood protection to local governments, resulting in a patchwork of often-underfunded systems built on inadequate flood mapping. Individual communities are expected to carry out erosion mitigation work, repairs to dikes, hydrological surveys, riverbank restoration and critical infrastructure repairs.

Ten years ago, a report commissioned by the province found that more than two-thirds of B.C.’s dikes were in “poor to fair” condition, while 18 per cent were labelled “unacceptable.”

Just months before the 2021 floods, another report warned that “most of the dikes in the province do not fully meet provincial standards,” and would likely breach even during relatively weak storms.

During a news conference on Thursday, Bowinn Ma, B.C.’s Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, told reporters that she will work with communities to find out how to advance their flood mitigation plans.

The government is in the process of developing a provincewide flood mitigation strategy, Ms. Ma said, “which will hopefully inform more localized mitigation plans that will be put forward by communities.”

Preventing floods is a better use of funds than dealing with the aftermath, she added.

“Recovery work, for many reasons, is far more complicated, much more disruptive, very challenging and very expensive as well. We in the emergency management world generally say that a dollar spent in mitigation is actually worth seven or eight dollars spent in response and recovery. So the focus on mitigation is incredibly important.”

Since the 2021 floods, which were caused by a trio of atmospheric rivers, some communities have received funds for mitigation planning from senior levels of government. Abbotsford, which has completed final repairs on the breach at the Barrowtown pump station, is the furthest ahead. Even there, however, there is much work to be done. Last month, the city announced a framework agreement to support the design of mitigation projects in the Sumas River watershed.

Abbotsford has also identified vulnerabilities on another dike that is more susceptible to freshet flooding, the Matsqui dike along the Fraser River. The most recent inspection found potential erosion conditions, an unauthorized pole installation and a sinkhole near the Matsqui slough pump station.

For now the maintenance, repairs and upgrades remain Abbotsford’s to address, as Ms. Ma suggested the province isn’t ready to take over that work – even while it recognizes the shortcomings of the system.

“We know we can’t keep doing things the way we’ve done them before if we want to protect the region from future catastrophic flooding,” Ms. Ma said during the framework announcement in Abbotsford on April 28.

That day marked the start of a stretch of record-shattering temperatures that triggered flooding and flood alerts around the province.

Three hours north of Abbotsford, Cache Creek Mayor John Ranta watched water flow through the middle of his fire hall this week. He recalled how he had pleaded for help from the province five years ago to fix infrastructure that might have controlled the flow into the creek.

That didn’t happen, and now it is too late.

“I just can’t think of anything that can be done at this point. There’s water coming down the creek, and that’s just the way it’s going to be until the snow finishes melting.”

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