A Senate committee says there is an urgent need for the federal and British Columbia governments to help develop a plan for flood control in the Fraser Valley, one that would involve spending billions of dollars to bolster dikes in the region east of Vancouver.
The recommendation was announced Thursday by the Senate committee on agriculture and forestry, which also released a report on its findings. The senators studied the aftermath of last year’s flooding in the Fraser Valley region, which displaced almost 15,000 people, severed highways and killed thousands of farm animals. The committee heard that the B.C. government estimates agricultural operators collectively sustained $285-million in damage.
“Most of the dikes built to prevent flooding in the Lower Mainland no longer meet provincial standards, and upgrades have not been prioritized,” Robert Black, the senator who chairs the committee, told a news conference.
He noted that climate change will likely lead to future disasters. “At the rate that Canada is warming, we know that major floods will reoccur and the damage they cause could be worse,” he said. He added the committee heard that if the Fraser River were to overflow its banks the damage would be at least 10 times greater than that caused by the 2021 floods.
“The fact that communities are not properly protected is deeply troubling,” he said.
Despite calling for billions in spending, Mr. Black said he was not in a position to be specific about costs. “We have heard billions. We didn’t get a number,” he said. “Some of the dikes have to be moved, not just rebuilt or built higher.”
In July, the federal government said it would provide B.C. with $875-million in advance payments to rebuild infrastructure damaged in the flooding. The money was announced by federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair and B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth after a final meeting of a joint committee they co-chaired, the aim of which was to plot recovery after the disaster.
The money was part of an initial $5-billion promised to B.C. through the federal Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program. Mr. Blair and Mr. Farnworth said at the time that the full cost of recovery had not been determined. A Globe and Mail analysis earlier this year found the cost of restoring what was lost was nearing $9-billion, and could be much higher.
Without spending on new dikes, Mr. Black said on Thursday, “We’ll see this happen again, and again and again.”
The committee made two other recommendations. It said the federal government should ensure the federal Agriculture Department, Public Safety Canada and other entities have enough financial and human resources to provide support to people, businesses and communities affected by natural disasters.
And it said the governments of Canada and the United States, as well as governments below the federal level in the two countries, should discuss managing waters along the international border, including the Nooksack River, whose flood waters inundated the Abbotsford, B.C. area last year, even though the river itself is located across the border in Washington.
The committee found that large swaths of Fraser Valley agricultural land remain vulnerable to flooding because they are on a drained lakebed.
“As bad as this was, it’s a wake-up call to something that could be much worse,” senator Paula Simons, the committee’s deputy chair, told the news conference.
Ms. Simons mentioned a 2015 study that found 87 per cent of Lower Mainland dikes were “in less-than-fair” condition and 71 per cent were expected to be overtopped by water in a flood.
Asked to comment on the committee’s call for billions in spending, Annie Cullinan, Mr. Blair’s communications director, said in a statement that Public Safety Canada is mindful of supporting communities as they build back after natural disasters in ways that strengthen their resilience.
Ms. Simons said the committee’s report, based on testimony from 23 witnesses, was rushed so it would be completed by the first anniversary of last year’s flooding.
“We hope that this does not sit on a shelf and gather dust,” she said.
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