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B.C. mayors slam feds over failure to produce flood protection money

Merritt mayor: "I have people that are desperately in need of protection."
Princeton flood
Princeton, B.C., residents float and wade through floodwaters, Nov. 15, 2021.

Leaders from three B.C. communities hit with devastating floods in 2021 gathered in Abbotsford Monday to slam the federal government for denying them funding to protect and adapt to future floods. 

The mayors of Abbotsford, Merritt and Princeton each took to the dais calling on Ottawa to reconsider what they described as 500-page applications under the federal Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund

“How much more information do you need? … it's been two and a half years and we still have temporary dikes up,” said Princeton Mayor Spencer Coyne.

Abbotsford Mayor Ross Siemens said the city was encouraged by senior levels of government to apply to the federal program, and that he was “optimistic” their applications would be accepted. He said he spent three months trying to contact Minister of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities Sean Fraser but was given no details around why their applications had been denied. 

“We feel completely abandoned by our federal government,” said Siemens. 

Merritt Mayor Michael Goetz said the communities “have completely been ghosted.”

“They did not return any calls, they did not return any emails. They returned nothing,” he said. “You take my taxes I expect something back for it.” 

Infrastructure Canada spokesperson Caleb Spassov said all the projects under the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund (DMAF) are assessed on the information provided in the application. The biggest factors include hazard risk, resilience, and return on investment, he said.

Spassov did not comment on why the three communities had their applications denied. He also did not directly respond to Goetz's claim that the City of Merritt had been “ghosted” for months at a time.

“Infrastructure Canada communicates reasons for decisions directly to applicants, and always offers to answer any questions they might have,” wrote Spassov in an email.

Flooding in Sumas Prairie, Nov. 22, 2021. B.C. Government/Flickr

In November 2021, a powerful atmospheric river later found to be made 60 per cent more likely from climate change dropped more than 400 millimetres of rain in some parts of B.C. 

The resulting landslides and floods knocked out bridges, highways and rail lines, causing billions of dollars in damage to the province’s transportation system. 

Dikes began to fail. 

In Abbotsford, the Sumas and Nooksack rivers burst through dikes and filled up an old lakebed drained almost 100 years earlier. The floods triggered the evacuation of 3,000 people and killed 670,000 livestock.

Merritt's entire population of 7,000 people was evacuated in the middle of the night as the Coldwater River flooded much of the city at levels 2.5 times higher than anything engineers had ever predicted. And in Princeton, dike failures flooded much of the town, forcing residents to escape their homes in boats. 

According to the three mayors, federal applications to protect their communities from floods totalled $64 million for Merritt, $20 million for Princeton, and $1.6 billion for Abbotsford. 

Asked to comment on the mayors' claims, the Infrastructure Canada spokesperson pointed to five major flood mitigation projects in B.C. approved under the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund. Of those, $7.3 million was sent to Abbotsford for flood defences, the spokesperson said.

Mayors say residents remain 'traumatized'

The mayors said they were doing what they can to protect their communities and would be looking to the province to help them access the federal money they need. 

But without reinforced dikes, Goetz said many in Merritt remain traumatized by the 2021 floods, including his wife.

“We have people that have post-traumatic stress, that when it rains for three days and they hear a siren, they start panicking,” he said. 

“I have people that are desperately in need of protection.”

The mayors’ call to action comes days after a judge certified a class-action lawsuit filed by residents of Abbotsford against the city. The lawsuit alleges flooding was magnified by improper operations of a pump station. The claims have not been tested in court.

And on Monday, a group of researchers from the University of B.C., the Sumas First Nation, and regional environmental and legal groups published a study presenting an alternative plan to deal with future floodwaters. 

Past options presented by the City of Abbotsford looked to further harden flood defences at a cost of up to $2.4 billion. 

The cost to buy out residents, retreat from the region and allow a historic lake to recover, on the other hand, was calculated at just under $1 billion. 

Abbotsford’s mayor said that calculation failed to consider Sumas Prairie’s role as some of the most productive agricultural land in Canada.