Bob Rutherglen has been watching the waters along British Columbia’s Duhamel Creek creep higher and higher this spring.
His property in Six Mile, northeast of Nelson, was among 164 placed on an evacuation alert last week, and although that’s since been lifted, the creek is still at risk of rising rapidly, swollen by a swiftly melting snowpack and unstable weather.
Mr. Rutherglen’s home is protected from the creek by a 776-metre-long dike, built in the 1960s with logs stacked on top of one another. The wood on the so-called crib-and-berm structure is starting to deteriorate and rot in some areas. No government agency is responsible for ensuring it continues to do its job.
“You need to have the creek dredged out to make it deeper … and then the cribbing that holds up some of the bank needs to be replaced with cement lock blocks,” Mr. Rutherglen said in an interview.
“I’ve been fighting this for 12 years, and nobody’s done a thing.”
The dike on Duhamel Creek is among the more than 100 orphan dikes that have no owner or diking authority responsible for their maintenance in British Columbia. Most were built by the provincial government (or under its authority) during or after a flood, but were forgotten or abandoned once the crisis passed. One stretch of that embankment, officially known as Structure 347.003, is listed as among those dikes with the highest likelihood of causing a fatality.
According to a 2020 review that surveyed 105 orphaned structures across the province, 31 were deemed “almost certain” to fail in a high-water event.
Unseasonably cool temperatures this spring have meant the snowpack has been slower to melt than usual. But with warmer temperatures approaching and unstable weather that has included heavy rainfall in some parts, creek, rivers and streams are in danger of spilling their banks. As of Monday, some 360 people were living under an evacuation alert, meaning they needed to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.
The province last Friday acknowledged that some of the areas affected rely on orphan dikes for protection, though Dave Campbell, who leads the B.C. River Forecast Centre, couldn’t say how many. The majority of orphan dikes can be found in West Coast, Kootenay-Boundary and Thompson-Okanagan.
When asked whether the province is doing anything to ensure those dikes don’t fail, Mr. Campbell said the RFC monitors the condition of the dikes, and local governments ask for help when they need it.
“In terms of orphan dikes, one of the challenges is they are not necessarily tagged to having a local banking authority who’s responsible for the upkeep and maintenance. And so it really falls on to the ongoing monitoring and assessment that happens by staff during high-flow events,” he said.
This week, the provincial government announced its long-awaited climate strategy to fight extreme weather and its effects. But officials are still working on a comprehensive provincial flooding strategy and flood resilience plan, which was promised last November after the catastrophic flooding across southern B.C.
“We’re planning to have the floods strategy ready next year, as well as the B.C. flood resilience plan, which will include consideration of new diking needs by 2025,” the province’s Environment Minister, George Heyman, said on Monday.
That’s not going to be fast enough for Mr. Rutherglen. He said he’s had his suitcase packed two to three times in the past, including last year.
“What has to happen to make you guys do something? You are going wait until somebody drowns?” he said, rhetorically addressing both local and provincial governments.
The B.C. government declined to provide details about the state of the Duhamel Creek dike. Chris Johnson, manager of community sustainability for the Regional District of Central Kootenay, said the regional district pays extra attention to the structure, worrying about it “unravelling.”
RDCK issued a notice on Friday, noting the average snowpack is well above normal this year because of cooler temperatures. It says the current average snowpack in B.C. is 198 per cent of normal, but in West Kootenay region, which includes the entire RDCK, snowpack is at 215 per cent of normal.
RDCK board has been investigating what the costs would be to replace the dike, but there’s “no concrete timeline” for that, Mr. Johnson said in an interview.
When asked who will be responsible for the costs, he said, “that is part of the process of understanding the overall cost, for the board to work with the residents to determine. And if once costs are understood, whether that is something that could be reasonably expected by the residents to fund. At that point, the board can make a decision to take ownership of the dike.”
In a statement provided by a spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, it said the province continues to work collaboratively with local governments to address orphan dikes and flood risk reduction, including with the RDCK. It said the B.C. government also provides access to funding programs to assess risk, map flood hazards, and develop a range of flood risk reduction options, including dike improvements.
Beside Duhamel Creek, there’s a francophone school that has more than 80 students from K-6 and Grades 7-9. Every year, staff at the school worry about possible floods or mudslides, said Louise Thérien, secretary at École des Sentiers-Alpins.
There’s only one road accessing the school, Ms. Thérien added – so when a disaster or even just an evacuation alert takes place, it creates chaos.
“We just want to feel safe,” she said.
With reports from Justine Hunter
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