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Causes of 2021 Sumas Prairie flood to be revealed in court case

City of Abbotsford says Nooksack flooding to blame while plaintiffs allege faulty management of pump station

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The B.C. Supreme Court has approved a class-action lawsuit against the City of Abbotsford by residents affected by the Sumas Prairie flood of November 2021.

At the heart of the residents’ claim is that a decision by city staff not to close floodgates between the Fraser and Sumas rivers during a critical time led to the flooding, while the city says Washington’s Nooksack River breaking its banks was to blame.

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The Sumas flood event occurred from mid to late November of 2021, when two very heavy rainfall events occurred in northwest Washington State and the Lower Mainland, melting early-season snow.

Much of the Sumas Prairie is on an old lake bed that was drained in the 1920s to create farming land and relies on a pumping station system and dikes to remain dry at all times.

The prairie is below sea level and below the Fraser and Nooksack rivers. Both rivers have overflowed in the past, causing disastrous flooding.

The most important piece of infrastructure used to manage prairie flooding is the Barrowtown Pump Station — a four-pump facility opened in 1983 that keeps the Fraser River out of the Sumas Lake Canal and river and protects many square kilometres of prime agricultural land.

The station has four flood boxes that are normally left open so water from the Sumas River and canal can flow into the Fraser River.

Court heard that an intense weather event was forecast on Nov. 5, 2021, and that on Nov. 10 flood forecasters told the city that two atmospheric rivers would hit the region from Nov. 11 to 14.

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The heavy rains arrived in northwest Washington and the Abbotsford area on Nov. 13.

At around 8 a.m. on Nov. 14, the water level on the Fraser River side of the pump station reached three metres, which the plaintiffs claim should have triggered the flood boxes to be closed.

The plaintiffs allege that the flood boxes were not closed until 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 15 when the Fraser River was at 6.9 metres.

During this time, water flowed from the Fraser River through the open flood boxes, overflowing the Sumas River and into the Outer Sumas Prairie.

On Nov. 16, the Sumas Dike system failed in two places and water then flowed into the Inner Sumas Prairie.

Barrowtown Pumping Station and adjoining flood gates on Nov. 23, 2021.
Barrowtown Pumping Station and adjoining flood gates on Nov. 23, 2021. Photo by Dale Klippenstein Emergency Oper /PNG

It is estimated tens of thousands of poultry, pigs and cattle died with an estimated loss of over $1 billion dollars. Hundreds of residents were evacuated and homes damaged.

“The claim is based on the allegations that Abbotsford is liable for operational failure,” B.C. Supreme Court Justice Dev Dley wrote in his ruling that approved the class action.

“The plaintiffs plead that Abbotsford knew of the impending danger of the weather events and that failing in its duty to properly operate the pump station would inevitably cause flooding and harm to those in the Outer and Inner Sumas Prairie.

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“Knowing of the forecast atmospheric river and presence of other factors such as the increased risk of flooding and the vital function of the Barrowtown Pump Station, Abbotsford failed to ensure that an adequate number of properly-trained staff were present at the Barrowtown Pump Station in the days before, and during, the Sumas Flood.

“If Abbotsford had ensured the proper staffing of the Barrowtown Pump Station, or if the employees on shift had taken reasonable measures including, but not limited to, ensuring the flood boxes were closed, the flooding to the Outer Sumas Prairie would have been reduced in geographic scope or eliminated.”

The city claims the flooding was due to water flowing into the Sumas Prairie from the Nooksack River and wanted each case handled individually, rather than as a class action.

The city used as part of its defence a court case in which the judge found that hosts of a party where a person drank alcohol and then left the party and caused an accident on a highway were not responsible.

The city’s lawyers also referred to a case in which a resident of Nelson, B.C., fell trying to cross a snowbank that had been created by city workers during snow clearing attempts.

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“I conclude that the pleadings satisfy the requirements of alleging the causes of action in negligence and nuisance. It is not plain and obvious that the pleaded causes of action are bound to fail,” Dley wrote.

“Abbotsford submits that there are other factors that either caused or contributed to the floods. It points to evidence that there was additional water flowing into the Sumas Prairie from the melting snowpack and the Nooksack River topping its banks.”

Images from inside and around the Barrowtown Pump Station in Abbotsford, where Canadian Armed Forces arrived to help on Nov. 20, 2021.
Images from inside and around the Barrowtown Pump Station in Abbotsford, where Canadian Armed Forces arrived to help on Nov. 20, 2021. Photo by Dale Klippenstein, Canadian Arme /PNG

There are around 1,400 residents of the Sumas Prairie that will be eligible to join the class action.

“This decision is a significant step forward to obtaining access to justice by allowing the plaintiffs’ action to proceed to trial,” said lawyer Anthony Vecchio, who is representing the plaintiffs.

“Individuals and businesses who suffered harm due to the flooding in the Sumas Prairie in November 2021 will be notified in due course regarding next steps in the class action.”

In February 2024, the B.C. government said it would spend $77 million to upgrade the Barrowtown Pump Station.

“The Barrowtown Pump Station is one of the most integral parts of our community’s flood-mitigation infrastructure, and increasing Barrowtown’s capacity is critical to protecting our city during any future flooding disasters,” said Mayor of Abbotsford Ross Siemens at the time.

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