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Bins of sand are placed across the road next to a wall of sandbags along rail tracks to form a temporary dike in the Huntingdon Village area of Abbotsford, B.C., on Nov. 28, 2021. An evacuation order was issued for Huntingdon Village because of danger to life from potential flooding of the Nooksack River across the Canada-U.S. border in Washington.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

For most of the year, the sediment-laden waters of the Nooksack River slip little noticed behind the tree-lined banks that keep it from spilling into northern Washington State.

But every once in a while, when the rain is heavy or the snow-melt fast, the river transforms into a writhing churn, leaping over its banks near the town of Everson and pouring through dairy barns and blueberry fields on a course for lower ground to the north, in another country: Canada. When the Nooksack overflowed in mid-November, flood waters caused an estimated $1-billion in damage in the Abbotsford, B.C., area.

The floods that have devastated farmers and homeowners in Abbotsford are a product of record rainfall and many failures by leaders in Canada to adequately prepare, including a lack of maintenance of key dike systems in B.C.

But they also mark the most severe consequence of a long-standing breakdown in international co-operation around the Nooksack, which normally flows only through the U.S., but whose floodwaters pose a particular threat to Canada.

To keep the Nooksack from flooding at Everson, which is 9.5 kilometres from the Canadian border, the estimated cost would be considerably less than that $1-billion damage bill: just $29-million to install a levee extension. Build that, and structural and agricultural damages to the Abbotsford area in the worst possible flooding would be cut by more than $500-million, according to a flood mitigation plan delivered to the city of Abbotsford last year.

The price tag for that Nooksack levee work is less than a tenth the cost of flood prevention alternatives on the Canadian side, which include raising dikes and tunnelling a runoff channel through a mountain. And addressing the problem on the U.S. side would provide “the highest benefit when looking only at Canada-side damages,” the report says.

But flood planners in the U.S. have done no studies of such an option. “We hadn’t gotten there yet,” Dave Radabaugh, Washington’s National Flood Insurance Program Coordinator, said in an interview.

And despite years of anger over the inability to resolve a major cross-border problem, there has never been a formal call to involve a century-old U.S.-Canada commission designed specifically to draft solutions to such issues.

Politicians and engineers in B.C. have implored Washington State to do something about the Nooksack. More than 30 years ago, they created a Nooksack River International Task Force. They have flown to the Pentagon to plead their case. They have asked for the Nooksack to be dredged, and attempted public shame to create pressure. “The Americans have not touched a stick or pebble in that river since the flood of 1990,” then-Abbotsford mayor George Ferguson said in 1992.

Three decades later, the Nooksack, by design, continues to flood at Everson, spilling waters that find their way into Canada.

On the Washington side, there has been a reluctance to spend money to benefit Canada, said Ron Henry, a retired B.C. river engineering specialist who was the inaugural co-chair of the Nooksack task force.

“It was quite a frustrating process over the years,” he said.

The international disconnect is a shared one: Canadian computer models designed to predict increases in extreme precipitation are blind south of the border. They provide data on B.C., but nothing on what might enter the province from elsewhere.

On the U.S. side, Mr. Radabaugh’s own work is similarly bounded by the 49th parallel. “I stop at Sumas,” he said, referring to the small Washington border town that Nooksack floodwaters traverse before coming into the Abbotsford area, where they filter into the drained lake now called the Sumas Prairie. “There’s always a tendency, I think – and this is true of all of us – to look at our local conditions,” he added, although that “doesn’t preclude working together. And we need to.”

In any river, a change in one place produces effects elsewhere – and higher banks at Everson could well create more flooding downstream, where the Nooksack passes valuable farm and Indigenous lands. The Abbotsford report recognizes this, saying “additional analysis work is needed on the U.S. side to provide the overall benefit-cost ratio.”

“We’re still looking at it and sorting through the options,” Mr. Radabaugh said. The Nooksack is home to chinook salmon, which are protected under U.S. law as a threatened species. “It really isn’t simply an economic analysis for us,” Mr. Radabaugh said.

In the late 1980s, Washington planners concluded that changes to the river were not worth the cost, but their analysis did not examine the benefit changes might bring to Canada.

In 1990, the last time the Nooksack flooded Canada, water caused the closure of the Trans-Canada Highway for 26 hours and both sides promised change. In Washington State, Whatcom County said it would pay for studies. America’s Congress also commissioned a river basin report. Prodded by Canada, federal, state and provincial officials agreed to the creation of the Nooksack international task force, which released recommendations in 1992. Those included better floodplain management and the creation of a comprehensive flood damage reduction plan.

In 1997, the Nooksack came within inches of once again flooding its banks. Later that year, B.C. MLA Mike de Jong visited the Pentagon for a meeting with the official then leading the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Mr. de Jong was told that the Corps was looking at actions that “would significantly reduce the likelihood of a repeat flooding event,” he said.

The Army Corps has buttressed some dikes in the area, and the United States Geological Survey has added river monitoring, including a gauge at Everson. Environment Canada agreed to broadcast some U.S. flood warnings on its radio broadcasts. “But the events of the last couple of weeks confirm that there is clearly much much more to be done,” Mr. de Jong said.

There is one option that has not been used: the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canada body, established by a 1909 treaty, that investigates solutions to cross-border water issues when it is commissioned to do so by federal governments. The IJC has been used after other disasters, such as the Red River floods in 1997. But despite informal inquiries from B.C. in the early 1990s, it has “never received direction from the Governments of Canada and the United States to engage in the Nooksack-Sumas flooding issue,” said Paul Allen, a manager with the commission.

The B.C. government confirmed it has not requested IJC involvement.

Although IJC recommendations are not binding, the commission can suggest ways of addressing thorny issues, including payment from one country to the other for construction or compensation. But B.C. has been reluctant to use the IJC following a 1988 report that resulted in the cancellation of the Sage Creek coal mine on the Flathead River, said Ralph Pentland, Canada’s former federal director of water planning and management. Ever since, “they try to avoid the IJC, which is a mistake – a big mistake – for the province and the people of B.C.,” he said.

The Nooksack task force was formed as an alternative to the IJC at a time when B.C. and Washington sought local solutions to cross-border problems. But the task force did not meet for much of the past decade.

Had the IJC been used on the Nooksack, its recommendations “possibly could have prevented some of this” flooding, said Murray Clamen, a McGill University scholar who worked at the IJC for more than 30 years, including as secretary of the Canadian section.

“The IJC is there as a tool,” he said. “It can be used.”

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