First Nation, village propose permanent barriers to protect Teslin, Yukon, from flooding

·3 min read
Sandbags are piled up on pallets, ready to be distributed in areas at risk of being flooded in Teslin, Yukon, on June 14. The lake level has since dropped, and the community is now proposing to build permanent barriers to prevent possible flooding in the future. (Mike Rudyk/CBC - image credit)
Sandbags are piled up on pallets, ready to be distributed in areas at risk of being flooded in Teslin, Yukon, on June 14. The lake level has since dropped, and the community is now proposing to build permanent barriers to prevent possible flooding in the future. (Mike Rudyk/CBC - image credit)

In early winter, Tlingit trappers near Teslin, Yukon, observed something out on the land that stoked serious concern: the snow was unusually deep. Before long, they relayed the message to the Teslin Tlingit Council.

"They said we're going to have a problem here with flooding," said Chief Eric Morris. "They couldn't even get to their traplines."

Fast forward to June and a flood warning was issued for the community, followed by an evacuation alert for certain parts of it. The water rose so high it surpassed last year's record-breaking flood levels by roughly one metre.

Since then, Teslin Lake has come down but the level remains "well above average" for this time of year, according to the territorial government. An earlier flood warning was downgraded on Thursday to a high water advisory.

Morris told CBC News stopgap flood prevention efforts such as sandbagging haven't been helping his community. That's why the community is changing tack, to prepare for any future flooding.

The council and the Village of Teslin are working in concert to build permanent structures to shore up the community, a significant portion of which sits on a large promontory into Teslin Lake.

They have a project proposal in front of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board that seeks to build large dikes, berms and slope armouring – heavily fortified rock barriers to prevent erosion.

"A warming and more variable climate appears to be bringing more extreme weather events to our area," the proposal states. "Traditional knowledge and scientific monitoring confirm increasing weather extremes in our region in terms of both magnitude and frequency."

The project comes with a roughly $10-million price tag. To Morris, that kind of money is not so much a cost to the community but an investment, the hope being to better withstand climate change.

"You could see it as a threat, but you could also see it as an opportunity to do something,right?" he said.

"We've had flood situations, but they've never been to the extreme that we've had them in over the last couple of years, so I think this has really caused us to really pull together and look at what is it we can put in place that is going to be permanent that's going to really begin to stabilize our situation when it comes May and June of every year."

Pending approval, construction will start before freeze up and continue in the springtime.

Proposal highlights flood and erosion potential

The community's proposal provides insight into just how vulnerable the community is.

It says there's not one stretch of shoreline that isn't susceptible to erosion primarily from waves. As well, when floodwaters wash in, they endanger not only residences and critical infrastructure but also heritage sites.

Mike Rudyk/CBC
Mike Rudyk/CBC

If built, barriers will be roughly 687 metres above sea level. The community selected that elevation because the highest-ever recorded floodwaters were about that in 1962. The proposal states if water rises higher than that, sandbags will be stacked upon the structures.

Gord Curran, the mayor of the Village of Teslin, said the community is a united front over the project, noting the municipality and the First Nation have worked closely together for decades.

"We have a 10-year joint community development plan and this [project] follows along with those principles," he said. "We're here working together to protect our community."

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