How prepared are we for the next Fraser River flood?

THE WATER IS WIDE | Sand bags and gravel were rushed to the main line of the Great Northern Railway in this 1948 photo of the Fraser Valley flood

Another catastrophic flood along the Fraser River is likely within 50 years. For prospective homeowners, it’s buyer beware

On the tip of Lulu Island in New Westminster’s Queensborough district, a 21-storey tower of curved, floor-to-ceiling windows rises from the banks of the Fraser River. Peninsula is the latest development by Aragon Properties Ltd., whose master-planned community known as Port Royal has added some 400 residents to the formerly industrial lands since 2006—a slice of the more than 2,000 people who have moved into Queensborough over the decade. As the Fraser laps gently along the shore, however, Neil Peters worries that buyers might be getting more than they bargained for.

Fraser BasinPeters, the recently retired inspector of dikes for the Province of British Columbia, has spent almost 30 years in flood management and says the vast majority of the dikes in low-lying areas of New Westminster, Richmond, Chilliwack and Vancouver may not stop the murky waters of the Fraser River during a particularly bad flood. “How do we get people to understand the risk?” he asks.

The question isn’t rhetorical: the threat of a catastrophic flood is real and growing. According to Steve Litke of the Fraser Basin Council (FBC), a nonprofit concerned with flood management along the Fraser River, chances are one in three that a devastating flood will happen in the next 50 years, thanks to changing river hydrology, rising sea levels and climate change. “If the Fraser flood of record occurred next spring, some of the dikes would be overtopped and others would be vulnerable to failure,” he says.

The Fraser River hasn’t inundated the flood plain between Hope and Richmond in almost 70 years, but booming development in neighbourhoods like Queensborough—where the population is predicted to reach 13,000 by 2031 (now: 7,000)—means more and more people and property are at risk. In 2007, water came within half a metre of topping the dike at Queensborough, and in 2012 several riverside farms in Chilliwack and Langley were inundated. Richmond, a city built barely above sea level entirely on the flood plain, has seen 18,000 dwelling units constructed in the last 10 years alone.

A catastrophic flood—the kind that Peters and Litke worry most about—last happened in 1948, when over 2,000 homes were destroyed. Back then only 70,000 lived in the flood plain, but that number has jumped to about 315,000, and residential and commercial construction continues. All told, more than $30 billion in infrastructure and economic costs—highways, rail and power lines, sewage plants and the Vancouver International Airport—could be affected by such a flood.

To help prevent another disaster, the FBC is currently working on a coordinated flood management strategy with 25 local governments, along with the province. It hopes to release its report—with recommendations on how to strengthen policies and practices, and integrate flood protection infrastructure across the Lower Mainland—by mid-2016. One of the challenges it faces, however, is dealing with the different capacities of various jurisdictions. “They are all unique,” says Litke. “For example, the City of Richmond spends as much on diking and drainage as the entire budget of the District of Kent for all of their operations.”

Neil Peters thinks an integrated plan and updated floodplain maps could help mitigate a disaster on par with Calgary’s 2013 flood, when the Bow and Elbow rivers burst their banks, causing 100,000 people to evacuate, 5,500 businesses to shutter and some $6 billion in damages. Peters says a catastrophic flood on the Fraser could be much worse—and he worries that Richmond would be hardest hit, pointing to an unexpected break in the dike at the top of Lulu Island (managed by neighbouring New Westminster) in 2003. The river levels were low, so only limited flooding occurred, but at high water, Richmond would have filled like a bathtub in 24 to 48 hours.

In spite of this, Richmond’s director of engineering, John Irving, feels confident about the current level of flood protection. He’s aware that city dikes don’t meet recently updated provincial standards, which changed in 2006 after a reassessment of the 1894 flood (B.C.’s worst on record). But the city has a $300-million plan to meet the new dike guidelines, which also take into account a 1.2-metre sea level rise by 2100. “We will spend $10 million a year over the next 30 years,” he says. His long-term strategy is to build the entire city up to the 4.5 metre level, which is already happening with any new waterfront development.

To date, though, only 10 per cent of the city is built to that level, so Peters advises buyer beware for anyone planning on relocating to lands along the Fraser River. “Take some time to understand what the flood threat is. Look at flood-plain maps and talk to local governments about dikes.” 

Raging River

Raging RiverFraser floods through the decades

1894 Minimal damage due to small number of residents and low density

1948 2,000 homes destroyed, 16,000 evacuated; $210 million in damages (2010 dollars)

1972 Damage in Surrey and a new development destroyed in Kamloops; $36.9 million in damages (1998 dollars)

2007 High snow pack, cool spring and rapid warming in June led to concerns, sandbagging and livestock evacuation, but flood conditions did not materialize

2012 165 people were on evacuation order and 1,240 on evacuation alerts; economic cost untallied