In a gap in the Saar Creek Levee, surrounded by flooded Washington State farmlands just south of the Canadian border, an excavator flips small boulders into place, then covers them with dirt and gravel. On Monday morning, water was streaming through. By afternoon, that flow had been stanched and the levee slowly began to rise back to its original height.
It was a race to shore up defences before the rains begin again.
At this particular spot, less than three kilometres from British Columbia, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it expected to finish its work Monday. A number of other breaches have also been repaired.
But as yet another atmospheric river bears down on the flood-stricken region, at least one major levee breach nearby won’t be fixed before heavy rains return, amplifying the vulnerabilities not only here but in British Columbia, where the inundation around Abbotsford has come in part from waters that flowed north out of the U.S.
The Globe and Mail
Among the worst remaining breaches is at the Timon Levee alongside the Nooksack, the undammed Washington State river that poured over its banks two weeks ago, sending a great pulse of water into Canada.
At Timon, the river gouged a gap in the levee more than 30 metres long and nearly 10 metres deep. The force of the water also scoured a deep hole outside the break.
After a week of repair work, that scour hole has yet to be filled. Only once that’s done “can we then build back the levee,” said Keith Russie, a civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers. But rather than working on Monday, crews had to contend with fresh flooding that inundated the construction site.
The river has swallowed up rock intended to control its course, said John Perry, mayor of nearby Everson, Wash.
On Monday, with Everson City Hall still too damaged to use for a meeting, he met a reporter inside the local police station, sitting beside a bench equipped with handcuffs. He took out his phone to show video of the Nooksack flood from two weeks ago, which sent water pouring across Everson streets in such a torrent that a pickup truck bobbed past.
“That’s the water that goes to Abbotsford,” he said. “I know Abbotsford is not real happy with us.”
Everson is located at 26 metres above sea level. Sumas, Wash., is at 13. The Sumas Prairie, the most heavily flooded area near Abbotsford, sits at one metre above sea level. So when the Nooksack and other rivers overflow in Washington, their waters move north.
Mr. Perry sees culpability on all sides, pointing also to the Canadian decision to drain Sumas Lake nearly a century ago, creating an agricultural lowland that has partially refilled in recent weeks. “You can’t control Mother Nature,” Mr. Perry said.
But there is also frustration on the U.S. side that more was not done to prepare for heavy rains, particularly after flooding in the border town of Sumas last year. Since then, “we’ve done nothing,” Sumas Mayor Kyle Christensen said Monday. He called for a new approach that brings together people from both sides of the border. “We have got to do something because doing nothing isn’t working.”
Indeed, the place where the Nooksack spilled out through Everson was not designed with a levee – it was intended as a natural spillway – and no further work has been done in the past two weeks to reinforce its banks. Mr. Perry also worries that the emergency levee repairs won’t have had time to consolidate before more rain, leaving them more vulnerable than in the past.
So as the region contemplates a fresh deluge, it is doing so with compromised defences, and an even greater sense of uncertainty about what the fresh rains could bring. Not only have the repeated rounds of flooding created deep worry about what could happen, they have altered the flows and sediments of the river, making it difficult to predict how it will respond to a new round of heavy rainfall.
What happens next “all depends on the weather and how the river reacts,” Mr. Perry said. “Because everything has changed since this last flood.”
What has also changed, here and elsewhere, is the human capacity to take more loss. In the town of Sumas, more than 315 houses and 30 businesses flooded two weeks ago.
On Monday morning, the town sounded its flood siren again as water levels quickly rose. By early afternoon, a precise damage tally had not yet been completed, but the fresh inundation affected at least dozens of homes and businesses, Mr. Christensen said.
Owners of some of those newly flooded homes had already begun to make repairs before the waters once again rose.
Among them were Morgan Hance and Matt Roller, who drove a pickup through calf-deep water to sit for a moment at the driveway of their home, where they had already stripped away soggy drywall in hopes of beginning repairs.
Two weeks ago, the waters rose so high that they reached the steering wheel of Ms. Hance’s Jeep. It’s now a write-off. This time, they believe the house remained dry – but the forecast of more rain was discomfiting.
“We can’t live in it for now. If it happens, it happens,” Ms. Hance said. “There’s nothing we can do at this point.”
Others have begun to take action. A family doctor who has lived in Sumas for two decades has decided to leave town, Mr. Christensen said. ”They don’t want to mess with this any more,” he said.
“It’s devastating for families and businesses that did all that work to get it prepared – and to then get hit by this second wave less than two weeks later. It’s tough. There’s a lot of anger and a lot of anxiety and fear,” Mr. Christensen said.
People are beginning to wonder: “Why should I even rebuild?” he said.
Still, those repairing the dikes “did what they could,” he said.
On Monday that meant also trying to limit damage done to the natural world by the flooding.
As the excavator clattered rocks into place at Saar Creek, Jess Jordan waded into the muddy waters outside the levee and used his hands to chase down salmon now trapped outside the creek.
“We’re getting them out so they don’t get stranded,” he said, as he used a pine bough to sweep the waters for fish. The flooding has taken place in the middle of the salmon run.
As the sun briefly emerged from the cloud at midday Monday, Mr. Jordan, the Army Corps of Engineers flood lead for the Nooksack basin in Whatcom County, gave an excited shout. In his hands, a muddy steelhead flopped about. Mr. Jordan walked it past the muddy flood debris and over the levee, where he dropped it into the creek.
“That’s number seven,” he said, and returned to work.
B.C. floods: More from The Globe and Mail
On The Globe’s news podcast, environment reporter Kathryn Blaze Baum explains how B.C.’s mid-November rainstorms became so destructive. She also wrote an explainer with Matthew McClearn about how the “atmospheric river” effect brought so much water to B.C.