Officials in Washington’s Whatcom County are mulling a plan to buy out homes in areas of the state at risk of flooding from the Nooksack River, and create a floodplain that would help direct the water to Abbotsford, B.C.
The proposed ‘Hazard Mitigation Project for 2021 Flooding’ was presented to the county’s flood control zone advisory committee earlier this month, with the goal of presenting it to County Council this week.
If approved, it would involve “voluntary acquisitions” of properties in the flood zone, elevation assistance for adjacent areas at risk, and the creation of “floodway flow corridors” that would clear the path for the Nooksack to reach the Sumas Prairie.
“There’s going to be a combination of tools that are needed to solve this problem,” Paula Harris, Whatcom County river and flood manager, told the committee on Jan. 13.
“There’s just way, way too much water to put anywhere except –you know, I mean — it’s just a lot of water. Lake Sumas used to receive it all.”
Abbotsford and the Sumas Prairie — which suffered around $1 billion in damage last November, according to the city’s mayor — are still reeling from the impacts of November’s catastrophic flooding.
Overflow from Washington’s Nooksack River contributed to the breach of the Sumas dike, and the destruction of homes, farms and livestock between Nov. 14 and 16, 2021.
Some Whatcom County officials expressed concern for Abbotsford in relation to the proposed project.
“This is exactly what Canada is desperately afraid of, is that we’re going to make it easier for the water to get to Canada,” said local representative Thomas Brewster.
“This is going to be a pretty problematic issue if we don’t have a plan and we’re perceived as making a highway through Sumas and straight into Abbotsford and into Lake Sumas.”
John Perry, mayor of Everson, a city south of Sumas, suggested bringing Canadian counterparts on board, in part, as possible funding partners in flood mitigation. In the meeting, he also noted the extreme loss suffered by Abbotsford last year.
“We have to consider the impacts of sending water, that much water, through Everson, Nooksack, and Sumas and then into Abbotsford in all of these equations,” he said.
In an emailed statement, the City of Abbotsford said it is “pleased that Whatcom County is taking this situation seriously and considering options for their local communities.”
The proposal, however, underscores the city’s need for the federal and provincial governments “to be at the table as we work to address solutions.”
“We know that the floodwaters do not distinguish between international boundaries, so whatever gets built to the south greatly impacts our infrastructure requirements here in Abbotsford,” reads the statement.
“It’s vital that solutions are designed together with our U.S. counterparts to ensure all of our communities are protected going forward — and for us here in Abbotsford, we need to understand how those solutions will be funded.”
The proposal is still in the early stages, including canvassing impacted U.S. towns and cities for their support and interest in buyouts and creating the floodway.
Letters still need to be sent to property owners in target areas, said Harris, and there isn’t really a “defined scope of work” for applying to grants to fund the project.
Target areas in the U.S. include, but are not limited to, Everson, Ferndale, Marietta, Sumas, Nooksack, and Deming.
During the meeting, Jeff DeJong, another area representative on the committee, said it’s not accurate to portray the plan as directing the flood water into Canada, noting that Sumas Prairie has a lower elevation than Everson.
“Water goes downhill, there’s not really a whole lot we can do about it when it comes at that magnitude,” he explained. “We’re going to try as hard as we can to keep it from going that way, but it’s gonna go where it’s gonna go.”