Officials with the British Columbia government and the City of Merritt were aware of significant problems with dikes for several years before a series of atmospheric rivers flooded the community, documents released through a freedom of information request show.
The documents obtained by the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives show a registered professional engineer found numerous problems in 2018 with dikes protecting the community in the province's southern Interior.
The engineer, Aaron Hahn with the B.C.-based consulting company Interior Dams, reiterated the same concerns in2019, 2020and in June 2021, just five months before the flooding that forced more than 7,000 people out of their homes.
Dike maintenance is the responsibility of local authorities, but the B.C. government provides regulatory oversight through the Ministry of Forests.
At a news conference about B.C.'s wildfire, drought and flood conditions Wednesday, Forests Minister Bruce Ralston acknowledged the system "doesn't work."
In 2003, under the former B.C. Liberal government, much of the responsibility for dike maintenance was passed on to local authorities and the province "retained a very limited supervisory role," Ralston said.
"It's clear that that system — and that became very clear in the atmospheric river in 2021 — doesn't work, and so that's part of the reason why we're developing a much more expansive flood control strategy for the province," he said.
However, Parfitt said the changes in 2003 actually meant municipalities gained more power to approve development on floodplains, which would raise the stakes in the event of dike failure.
The province, through its inspector of dikes, continued to have the power to order any necessary work, but it has chosen not to use that power, he said.
Ralston told the press conference B.C. has an "extensive" network of dikes "and the repairs and development of a more resilient diking system has a big price tag" and the province is working with the federal government on funding for disaster relief.
The minister said he met with officials in Merritt earlier this year and he's "optimistic that the situation that arose will not take place again."
Hahn's 2021 report on dikes in Merritt identified ongoing concerns including "unauthorized excavations and modifications," as well as "excessive" vegetation growth, slumping and the loss of embankment material, and the displacement of erosion protection measures such as rocks used for reinforcement.
The report would be Hahn's last before torrential rainfall pushed the Coldwater River to overflow its banks in November 2021, causing dike failures, the shutdown of the city's water system and wastewater treatment plant, as well as extensive property damage amounting to about $150 million, according to the city's website.
His 2019 checklist described large cottonwood trees and other vegetation as "rampant" along one of the dikes. Its integrity had been "severely compromised," wrote Hahn, classifying the problem as a "high priority" to be addressed within two years.
Hahn's 2021 checklist stated the crest of one of the dikes had been "severely eroded" or excavated in one area and identified a "possible sink hole."
The report, dated June 19, 2021, said "the dikes are in a similar condition to previous years with the exception of minor changes to erosion patterns and vegetation growth," suggesting no significant work had been done to address the problems.
Hahn's report recommended "immediate implementation" of maintenance and other activities to address the high-priority concerns.
Reached by phone, Hahn declined to comment further on his findings.
Ben Parfitt, who submitted the document request through his work as a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said municipal authorities in B.C. are responsible for maintaining their own dikes.
But smaller communities often lack the funds necessary to make repairs, he said.
"The provincial government knows, or ought to know, that the costs of dealing with this infrastructure are in many cases beyond the ability of local government."
The Union of B.C. Municipalities endorsed a resolution in 2015 that called on the province to take back control of dikes managed by local governments, saying "the administrative and financial resources required to undertake these responsibilities are an increasingly unsustainable burden to small communities."
The union's website includes a response from the B.C. government at the time, which outlined its views on why the responsibility should stay with local authorities.
The union, which is the voice of local governments, endorsed a similar resolution in September 2022, saying the previous year's flooding had "emphasized the need to re-examine the province's 2003 decision to download diking responsibility to local governments."
While local authorities are responsible for dike maintenance, Parfitt noted the provincial inspector of dikes has powers under B.C.'s Dike Maintenance Act to inspect any dike and issue orders for necessary repairs or maintenance.
"They can issue orders at any point in time based either on inspections or their read of the (annual inspection reports) provided by the local dike authorities," he said.
If an order is not followed, the legislation stipulates the B.C. government may take steps to complete the work and recover its expenses from the local diking authority.
Yet Parfitt said the freedom of information request did not produce any such orders from the province in response to concerns about dikes in Merritt.
Parfitt had requested copies of annual dike inspection reports sent to the provincial inspector by authorities in Merritt, Abbotsford, Princeton, Chilliwack and Richmond between 2017 and 2021, as well as any related responses from the province.
The response to Parfitt's freedom of information request contains nearly 5,300 pages of documents, but he said just one page came from a source within the provincial government — an email pertaining to dikes in Princeton, B.C., about 90 kilometres south of Merritt, where a dike also failed during the 2021 flooding.
"If the flooding and other disasters that we saw in 2021 tell us anything, it is that governments should be spending money proactively to avert potentially bigger payouts down the road to fix things and to address other things, for example, lawsuits," he said, noting the B.C. government is named in lawsuits related to the flooding in Abbotsford and a landslide that killed five people that November.
A statement from the Forests Ministry said dike management orders have typically been used to stop activities that would negatively affect a dike, or to enable a local authority to perform its duties in the event of land ownership issues.
The province supports local diking authorities with guidelines, training and access to funding as part of a collaborative approach to flood protection, it said.
The B.C. government is also working with communities affected by the flooding in 2021 to develop a provincewide flood strategy, the ministry said.
"This potentially includes developing clear regulations under the Dike Maintenance Act to promote resilient, innovative flood protection infrastructure alongside other integrated approaches to reduce flood risk," it said.
Parfitt said he sent questions to the ministry, and the answers he received did not provide a reason why provincial officials did not issue any orders for repair work to be carried out in response to Merritt's annual dike inspection reports.
Michael Goetz, who became mayor of Merritt a year after the severe flooding in November 2021, declined to be interviewed about the earlier dike inspections.
In an emailed statement, he said city officials are focused on moving forward with rebuilding and they would "possibly look back" once the community is secure.
A city document posted last year shows the B.C. government had provided just over $24 million for "interim flood support," with nearly half earmarked for housing.
The city had also received approval for infrastructure repairs to be funded through the disaster financial assistance program, which sees costs split between the provincial and federal governments, the document said.
Last February, the province announced that it would provide Merritt with $2 million for diking around the city’s public works facility that had been inundated in 2021.
A flood mitigation study, funded with $329,000 from the province, has also been completed.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 13, 2023.
Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press