Restoring Sumas Lake is an important step in B.C. flood recovery, climate adaptation and reconciliation

We call on all governments to pause and reflect on an alternative path for the Sumas region.

The authors of this article, Tara Martin, Leah Balantyne, Deborah Carlson, Riley Finn, Ian Hamilton, Janice Kwo, Murray Ned, Rayanna Seymour-Hourie and Kristen Walters, are members of the The Lower Fraser River Working Group, a collaborative research group that represents the voices of Indigenous community leaders and fishers, scientists, and lawyers.

Flood recovery efforts in British Columbia are under way and will cost many billions of dollars before they are complete. The latest estimate from The Globe and Mail projects a cost of almost $9-billion.

Before we commit to that very large investment, we need to reflect deeply on how we should be moving forward. Is our recovery plan sustainable, and does it move us closer to righting historic wrongs while adapting our cities and landscapes to the impacts of climate change?

This reflection is particularly necessary as we rehabilitate the Sumas Prairie, one of the areas hit hardest by the November floods. The Sumas region was not always a prairie. A century ago, it was home to Semá:th Lake.

The area is the Semá:th peoples’ territory, and has been looked after by them always. The lake, which was drained in the early 20th century to make way for farms, is still remembered as a wealthy gathering place and contributor to the local and wider Indigenous trade economy. Semá:th Lake offered a habitat for an abundance of wildlife, including sturgeon, insects, five species of salmon, thousands of migratory birds and many other animals and plants. Over 70 of these species are now at risk of extinction.

As flood recovery investment decisions are being made for the Sumas region (the Semá:th lake bed) and neighbouring areas, we question what type of recovery makes sense in a time of rapid climate change, and in the context of the historic wrongs that led to the taking of this lake from the Semá:th people. The cost of recovery in the Sumas region already sits at $450-million, and this does not include the loss of uninsured land and infrastructure, or the cost of upgrades to the dikes and pump stations that keep Semá:th Lake from returning.

Our analysis reveals the cost of maintaining the Sumas region as a prairie will exceed $4.5-billion. While this estimate includes the updates required for the Sumas and Matsqui dikes, it does not account for future damages and class-action lawsuits, nor does it consider climate projections for 2050 and beyond.

Image of Barrowtown pump station with the river in the background.
Barrowtown Pump Station. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Instead of maintaining the Sumas Prairie in its current state, we are proposing that B.C. pursue a form of restoration of Semá:th Lake. This option is called “managed retreat” – a purposeful movement of people, buildings and everything associated with them away from areas vulnerable to hazards. This is a powerful tool being used around the world in areas prone to repeat flooding as a result of climate change. Our analysis estimates the cost of this option to be around $3-billion, including $1-billion for the purchase of land and buildings at current assessed values. The remainder would be used for cleanup and removal of manmade structures, and modification of current diking and pump station infrastructure.

Our work with Indigenous knowledge holders and fishers of the Lower Fraser has shown us that the response to crises over millennia by the ancestors of this land has been guided by instruction from people with necessary expertise. Great floods have happened in the Lower Fraser historically, as told in the sxwōxwiyám / sx̌ʷəx̌ʷəyém (“stories of the distant past” or “tell stories”). The way these floods were overcome was through hard lessons and collaboration: S’iwes Toti:lt Q’ep / syə́θəstəl̕ ʔəy səlí̕ q̓ tátələ̕ t (“teaching and learning together”).

There are stories that describe how ecological conditions were established by ancestors and other beings, such as Xe’xá:ls / x̌eʔx̌é∙l̕s (“transformers who made the world right”). These conditions were maintained in abundance by Indigenous stewardship throughout time. When these stewardship responsibilities are not followed, there can be detrimental impacts on land, water, animals and people, as we are seeing now.

When jurisdiction is not respected and Indigenous knowledge is excluded from land use decisions, negative consequences flow to various relationships and aspects of life. The draining of Semá:th Lake and the conversion of rich lake-bed soils into farmland is one example. Moving forward and adapting to climate change will require engaging Indigenous knowledge transfer and learning by doing.

Restoring Semá:th Lake would require planning together, righting past wrongs and learning from the natural laws of the lake and its people. Central to this process would be S’iwes Toti:lt Q’ep / syə́θəstəl̕ ʔəy səlí̕ q̓ tátələ̕ t. Collaboratively, Indigenous nations, local governments and provincial and federal decision-makers can draw upon the myriad tools already in place, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), B.C.’s DRIPA and a memorandum of understanding between the Sumas First Nation, the province and the City of Abbotsford.

We call on all governments to pause and reflect on an alternative path for the Sumas region – one that acknowledges the ongoing threat posed by climate-change-induced flooding, the cost and risk of “business as usual” and the need for innovative, informed and inspired regional planning to support climate adaptation and reconciliation.

A version of this article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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