We Did Good Work – The Decline of Flood Safety in British Columbia

Here are a couple of ponderous words. “Floodplain management.” That’s much too bureaucratic for the reality of swollen rivers and creeks and lakes and storm surge ocean, for alluvial fan avulsions and debris floods.

But that was the kind of work, looking after public safety around those bodies of water and unstable slopes, that I did for 26 years or so in a ministry for the British Columbia provincial government.

hwy-97-washout

I say “I did,” but I was usually a junior person in an experienced team of technicians and engineers.  I was one of the new technicians twenty-five years ago when active flood protection was a serious function of the province.

Over the years though, the job took on more responsibilities as the work force dwindled, and the Technician became Officer became Senior.

What ministry was that again?

I’ve left the name of the ministry indefinite because there were so many names, and accompanying re-organizations, over the years.  There was the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Environment and Lands, Ministry of Environment and Lands and Parks, back to Environment somewhere and then onward to Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection.  We called that one WLAP (wallop).  WLAP was so named because the government of the day hated the word “environment.”

The current and the most ungainly version, in every way, is the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.  Try saying that real fast three times.  Or even worse introduce yourself on the phone.  And what the hell is a natural resource operation?  Tree surgery?

There was an entire generation of foresters who were close to being out of a job due to markets, pine beetle infestation and silviculture neglect. The government needed to find a place for them.  They are good people, but with a different culture and priorities in the long-standing Forest Service as compared to say, the Ministry of Environment.  They were given this huge new ministry, MFLNRORD, to manage.  (Try to say that as an acronym.  MffflnrrrORD!)

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Where I worked was known variously over the years as Flood Safety, Flood and Groundwater, Flood, Engineering Section, and so on. It was always an odd duck to the managers. They usually put it with something roughly accurate like Water Management, but for awhile we were in Environmental Protection with the pesticides people. Not long ago they lumped us in with the fish & wildlife people, who really hate dikes, the flood safety structures.  Not too keen on dams either, with dam safety being another thing I did.

The most meaningful thing

The most meaningful thing for me was that we responded to emergencies. This made it stand out within whatever organization included it.  When I started at the end of several years of seriously bad flooding in our region, we were provided a thick folder of forms and procedures to use while hiring equipment and working with Ministry of Highway crews to do flood fighting.

But even then, within a very few years, the section’s responsibilities were pared back.  No longer expected to run the show (usually), we now became the subject matter experts, assessors and observers, for anything to do with flooding.  From the debris flows of the Chilliwack River Valley to the extensive farmland deluges around Hatzic Lake to threatened high water and flooding from the massive Fraser River, we were supposed to know what was going on and the best way to get things done.

bc-flooding-201805123

Over the years, our ability to respond to flood emergencies dwindled as the section’s staff were cut back and cut back.  The Emergency Management BC organization took over more, usually without enough specific technical expertise or planning.

Flooding in this part of BC, with everyone living on the delta of the mighty Fraser, or next to the Serpentine, or the Nicomekl, or the Pitt, or the Alouette, or the Chilliwack Rivers, to name only a few, risks the livelihoods and occasionally lives out of a few million people, and billions of dollars in property and infrastructure.

Flooding is not a rare occurrence. But it always fades out of topical awareness for the public in a surprisingly short period.  A couple of years maybe, or sometimes less.  Serious flooding happens somewhere in BC every year.

The foresters who have become Ministry managers inherited the responsibility for floodplain management with little understanding of dikes, other flood-related structures and policies. They lack acquaintance with the dire consequences of serious flooding.  Compared to forest tenure issues, timber sales and forest fires, it has little priority.

A certain camaraderie

But this blog post is really meant to be an appreciation of the people I worked with.  Responding to emergencies, assessing flood situations in driving rain or summer heat, built a certain camaraderie, passed down from the old hands to us more junior staff.  Sometimes we would have to step up and take on responsibilities we weren’t completely prepared for, with people going bugshit around us.

We cared about what we were doing.  We thought it was important.  It helped people.  That’s why it’s such a shame to see that function be ignored and slowly dropped with nothing to replace it.  The province has been lucky the last decade or so in the Lower Mainland Region — not so much serious flooding as there could be.

There are several of us in the Lower Mainland who, although retired, meet once in a while with who’s left.  These few struggle to do the mission, which is to keep people safe from flooding.  Safe from defective or poorly thought out diking designs, and poor planning placing more people at flood risk, safe from seismic failures and poorly engineered pipeline crossings.  Among many, many other things.

flood_mill1894

We get together and learn of the really insufficient effort the ministry makes about its flood prevention and response duties.

A case in point

A case in point, and then I’ll leave this….  Our section head was always an engineer who directed other engineers and technicians.  A dike is only as good as its weakest spot and it can be a highly technical issue.

Besides the engineering, the section head at one time had to know all the flood related bylaws of the municipalities in the region, all the personalities of engineering heads in the different municipalities, all the plans for studies on flood and river related matters up and down the main branch of the Fraser River, and elsewhere.  The section head would be expected to advise inter-provincially and internationally (down to the States).  Sea level rise and climate change had to be on his horizon. Seismic standards became important.

The management of this ministry of foresters had a hard time finding a competent engineer, for what they were willing to pay, to replace the retiring section head.  So that position is vacant and has been for months and months.  Other important engineering positions are vacant.

The solution?  Hire yet another manager to run things with little background or appropriate knowledge about flooding, dike standards or construction, and without the necessary engineering background.

We used to do good work.  I realized that the other day when I had a chance to chat with one of the other oldtimers.

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Notes on photo locations from a variety of news sources, top down:

1) Northern BC, along Highway 97
2) Flooding of Hwy 1 in BC, from Nooksack River in Washington State
3) In eastern BC.
4) Chilliwack flooding along Fraser River – always the potential.

 

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