“Angry, devastated, in awe”: Community weighs in on Grand Forks flood

“Angry, devastated, in awe”: three words used by a Red Cross volunteer to describe the community’s reaction to severe flooding that impacted Grand Forks earlier this year.

By: Teghan Acres, Summer Outreach Coordinator 

Flooding at the local park, credit: Grand Forks Gazette

Only three months ago, a small town in the Kootenay Boundary region of BC was overwhelmed by record breaking high water levels. A small town I happen to have a big connection to. My father grew up in Grand Forks and my favourite childhood memories are visiting during summer vacation. He lived right across from the river and always told me spring floods were common.

However, the situation this June was anything but common. Water from local rivers overflowed and rushed into houses, businesses, and farmland. Around 1600 homes in the area were given evacuation orders. A flood of this magnitude has not hit the area since 1948. Now, 70 years later, water levels broke the previous records by about 60 centimeters.

Destructive natural disasters such as floods, wildfires and droughts are expected to increase in frequency as British Columbia falls victim to the effects of climate change.

This year, as a summer student for the Freshwater Alliance, I went for my annual vacation with a goal larger than lounging in the sun. I wanted to connect with Grand Forks residents about the cause of the flood -- hear their first-hand thoughts and feelings. So, I did just that.

I chatted with a woman working in the visitor centre who had lived her whole life in Grand Forks. She remarked on the change she has seen over the years: “We are definitely seeing different weather patterns. The terrain is different, things are different. It’s all related to climate change.”

Not all community members were in agreement though; when I asked others about their thoughts they commented that the flood was just a freak thing.” A UBC Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences professor agreed that it is too early to pin this event in Grand Forks solely on climate change. Indeed, it is important to recognize that it is inherently tough to pin a single event to a larger phenomenon.

And yet, the science does show that climate change is increasing the likelihood of these events. A study published in 2012 found that -- because of climate change --the Kootenay region is expected to experience greater variation in environmental flows due to increased mid-winter rainfall and snowmelt, combined with earlier floods from heavy rain or melted snow.

However, a changing climate is likely not the only factor that contributed to this event. In the words of a past resident with experience working in emergency services in the area: The logging practices are what caused the rapid melt of the snow because up towards the headwaters of the left Kettle River, they clear cut the mountaintops.” He added that he had observed the river’s yearly high water mark occurring earlier each year.  

The photos above show how the landscape of the Christian Valley has changed due to logging. The Kettle River flows through this valley.

As I read through articles about the flood that dominated local newspaper headlines for weeks, I stumbled upon a grounding quote. British Columbia’s Premier John Horgan declared that, “As we plan recovery, we need to recognize that in an era of climate change we are going to have these events more frequently and need to plan for that.”  

Whatever the root cause of the flooding in Grand Forks--be it climate change, land-use pressures, unusual weather patterns, or a combination of factors--there is a resounding need for improved policy to respond to extreme events. British Columbia’s Auditor General put forward several recommendations for improvements regarding climate change governance, warning that local governments lack financial support and reliable data.

That’s why the Canadian Freshwater Alliance has been working hard to advance protections for water in BC. We’re at a moment in history where, if we play our cards right, we could see some incredible improvements in protections for freshwater. If an increase in the severity and frequency of extreme events is a wake up call, the newly-passed Water Sustainability Act (WSA) presents a rare opportunity for action. As key regulations, programs and policies continue to be rolled out, this is our collective "sink or swim moment." Will we develop tools that protect freshwater and leave a legacy for future generations? Or will we let the opportunity slip away?

The Freshwater Alliance is committed to working with and holding the government of British Columbia accountable while they develop and implement regulations for the WSA. Actions such as developing and implementing an environmental flows regulation, creating a rigorous provincial strategy for water monitoring and data, and committing to reconciliation and collaborative consent with First Nations can improve the state of freshwater health and governance in British Columbia.

We may not be able to stop extreme weather events like flooding from happening, but we can adjust to the risks they pose through diligent research, monitoring and planning. In the wise words of an environmental scientist, Every day we don’t adapt is a day we don’t have.”

Let’s take action now to create a safe and sustainable future for Canadians and their waterways.

Learn more about the WSA and how Our Water BC is advancing its implementation: Read on and endorse!

Overview of flooding in downtown Grand Forks, credit: Benjamin Firmston

John Horgan Quote Source: Grand Forks Gazette, June 20th Edition, ‘Horgan Announces Flood Funding’ article by Kathleen Saylors

If you enjoyed this blog, check out our article on flooding and freshwater in Canada here