Officials in Abbotsford, BC predicted the worst Tuesday night, as monthly rain fell over parts of the province in just days. Floodwater from the Nooksack River on the U.S. side of the border spilled over Sumas Prairie, the rich agricultural land reclaimed from what was once known Sumas Lake. A crucial pumping station was in danger, they warned, and if it failed, waters of the Fraser River would spill over Sumas Prairie as well – an even bigger disaster.
On Wednesday evening, officials announced that the community had narrowly avoided that scenario after hundreds of volunteers and city workers built an makeshift dam of sandbags around the pumping station, easing the tension on it.
However, the area was destroyed, its dairy farms, egg farms and greenhouses flooded. Farmers were forced to leave their farms, leaving thousands of animals left to drown.
It was part of a terrible weekend for BC, which is now under a state of emergency due to the so-called “atmospheric river” that dumped unprecedented amounts of rainfall across much of the province. In an extreme weather event many link to climate change, entire communities were evacuated; homes and vehicles were submerged; landslides washed away roads and highways; raging rivers destabilized bridges.
Lenore Newman, the director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, has long warned of the dire effects climate change has on food security and production. The floods in BC, she says, are partly a consequence of inaction.
Nathan Sing spoke to Newman about the resonances of the floods on BC’s food supply, the history of that key piece of countryside and the long-term implications of political inertia toward climate change. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
When you saw the reports Tuesday night that the Fraser River could flood Sumas Prairie and the surrounding areas would flood, what went through your mind?
That was the worst case, and I’m so glad it didn’t come. I was teaching in Abbotsford when the storm hit Monday, and we had to close the university because the water was coming up very quickly. Just then, I knew there was going to be a problem because the Nooksack River was incredibly high. When the Nooksack breaks its banks, the only place for the water to go is across the border into Sumas Prairie region where the Sumas Lake used to be, and since it is an old lake you have to pump the water to conserve. it dries. I expected there to be some flooding, but the extent of it is much more extreme than I originally thought.
How devastating is this flood and its repercussions for the people who live in the area?
It’s heartbreaking. I have a few students and friends who farm in the evacuated area who are off the grid. But farmers are tough, and I really think most of them will bounce back and hopefully they will have a lot of government support and disaster relief. But farmers care about their animals and there is a lot of animal loss today. Many of these farmers also just went through the heat dome months ago, and we can’t continue to have disaster after disaster. We need to start hardening our infrastructure and our farm landscape against climate change. If we have two or three emergencies a year, we can’t weather that long. The emotional and economic toll is too great.
Abbotsford is Canada’s most economically productive farming community, with 1,400 farms located within the Sumas Prairie. What immediate effects could the floods have on the food supply in BC and the rest of Canada?
The main impact is on animal farming, but hopefully any shortages or price changes will be temporary. The biggest problem for the food supply chain is the loss of the roads and railroad. Eastern and Central Canada probably won’t notice that much, but in Western Canada there will be no shortage of any goods that are hanging here at the [Port of Vancouver] that can’t find a way around until we open at least one way. This is a bit of a wake-up call on how fragile our supply chain is, and that fragility cascades straight across Western Canada. Everything that comes from a boat here has to go to the road or rail to cross the mountains and there are only a few roads. Right now they are all closed.
Which foods were most affected by the flood, and how much of this food goes beyond BC?
There was a fairly massive impact on chicken and egg production. Most of the affected supply would remain within the province. And while BC usually does not receive eggs, dairy products and milk from other provinces, they will receive during this crisis because that is how the supply chain system works. There are other small-scale farms, but it’s the off-season now. There are reasons you don’t want your vegetable farm to flood because flood water is dirty and it’s really not what you want to talk about your crops, but it will dry out.
Grocery shelves across BC are bare. Is this another case of irrational panic buying, or do individuals in certain places have to worry about food shortages?
It’s not entirely irrational, it’s just a little selfish. We will have trouble getting supplies to these cities for a while, so running out and buying some things makes individual sense; the problem is then everyone does it. We need everyone not to pile up, because this is temporary, and panic buying everything only makes the problem worse.
Are cataclysmic events like this something that farmers and experts like you in the area have envisioned?
I didn’t expect disaster to hit now, and so quickly. Farmers are resilient, and they expect the strange cataclysm because nature does that. The problem is that cataclysms, due to climate change, come too often. Some can’t take the emotional toll of having some of them — and the thought that there might be more — in the same year.
The floodwaters on the Sumas Prairie come from the U.S. side of the border, overpowering any protections along the Nooksack River in Washington state. Are authorities in the two countries communicating with each other about these dangers and conditions of the infrastructure?
There is a lot of coordination across the border to try to protect common resources. However, the Nooksack is a river that is flooding, and it has long been thought that we need to do a little more on our part in order to be able to tackle it. There are some weak points in the local system where there are dams that are not completely smelly, so we are not well protected against external threats. The Nooksack River broke its banks in Washington State, so that’s not in our control. But we have long known that we need to improve our defenses against that floodwater because the water knows no bounds. It just comes to us and doesn’t stop.
Can you describe the area and the agricultural operations in the areas affected by the flood?
The Sumas Prairie was originally a very shallow lake [with the same name] this was drained in the early part of the 20th century to create about 100 square km. of countryside. The Nooksack River diverted water into the Sumas Lake – the Fraser River occasionally backed into that lake as well. So there is a very elaborate series of dams and an important pumping station to keep this dry. The soil is mostly used for animal feed and for grass, it is very good for that. It’s also great soil — you can grow anything there — but there’s a lot of animal farming. Most of the livestock farming infrastructure is elevated above the lake, which is based on sea level.
During that flood, much infrastructure, technology, and machinery were exposed to water. Most tragically, many animals found themselves on shrinking islands of land. There was a mass animal death because there was no way to get them out. We had many farmers endangered their own lives to try to save their animals, but the water came too fast. that speed of rise really surprised everyone. It shows how intense the rain was and how unusual it was — we’re talking about 200 or 300 millimeters in two days — and all of that south of the border then came to us.
A 2013 City of Abbotsford report claimed that if the Barrowtown pumping station failed, it would “significantly impact food producers and food processing companies, and cause job losses that typically take 5-10 years to recover.” The condition of the pump no longer remains critical, but what would happen if it failed?
Yes, we avoided a bullet. There are four large pumps there, and in mid-day one pump is plenty to keep the Sumas Prairie dry. During the flood, even during all four running, we lost ground. If the Barrowtown pumping station failed – and it came close enough – the Fraser River would be high enough that it would replenish the original lake. So we would have a lake where a lake used to be, and we could have done very little about it other than stand and watch it happen. We’ve probably seen about a third of the original Sumas Lake suddenly come back, which is pretty damaging, but it’s not as catastrophic as it could be.
What are the next steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
We need help from the federations. We need funding for infrastructure repairs to immediately begin the infrastructure improvements we have long known we need to make — strengthening dams and flood control. We have plans that have been slowly launched, but we need to achieve it. We will need help to get our roads back on track and assess whether we need more connections with the rest of Canada, as it is very lonely here now. We are on an island, basically, surrounded by a ruin. And if it rains heavily in the coming days that’s a problem for us, but it looks like it’s going to be pretty dry. All of this should be a budget priority.
It is a political interplay that characterizes responses to climate change, although catastrophic natural events continue to occur. What will happen if the response to the global climate crisis remains reactive without many proactive solutions?
If we all do nothing about climate change — which tends to be the case, despite many luxurious meetings — eventually disrupting infrastructure will break our civilization. It will be simply disastrous, and more than we can handle. We need to figure out how to get carbon out of the air, and at least not put in any more. We also have to adapt to the inevitable problems we’ve been baking with completely confusing for 30 years. Some things, like sea level rise, we can’t control. Some low nations will simply disappear. We will lose parts of our landscape that are too close to the ocean. We just have to live with that. We could have prevented that 20 years ago. We can’t now. Now what we need to do is make sure we don’t make it worse.
How can the food system become more resistant to climate effects?
Everything we can produce indoors and locally, we should, especially in places like BC, where we have a lot of renewable energy that is carbon neutral. We can shorten the food chain by producing food locally; doing so is much more effective and it allows us to return some land to natural systems. We need to eat less meat or produce protein in different ways; we cannot continue to block a forest to turn it into animal farming. Regenerative agriculture is also a good way to go where supply chains would allow the land to actually be a coal mine again. Agriculture is one of the only areas where it can actually be turned carbon-positive, as 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface is used to produce food, either by field crops or by grazing.
Nathan Sing writes on food security and hunger issues in Canada. His one-year position at Maclean’s is funded by the Maple Leaf Center for Action on Food Security, in partnership with Community Food Centers Canada. Email tips and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.