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An ounce of prevention: B.C. shores up plan against risks of catastrophic flood

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NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. - In the spring of 2007, British Columbia's Liberal cabinet was briefed on a potentially disastrous scenario: if temperatures climbed above 26 degrees over any two-day period before the end of June, the province would be struck with the most destructive flood since 1898.

"Those of us that were privy to that information were probably the only ones who were praying for cold weather," said Colin Hansen, then minister of economic development.

The government lined up dump trucks. Dykes along the Fraser River came within half a metre of being breached. But the region escaped unscathed.

"The kind of pictures that you're seeing on television today coming out of southern Manitoba and southern Saskatchewan — those are the pictures you would have been seeing right here in the Fraser Valley," Hansen said.

He now heads the non-profit Fraser Basin Council, which has mobilized a provincewide think tank to design a plan for mitigating future flooding in the Lower Mainland.

Officials gathered Tuesday in New Westminster for a meeting overlooking the banks of the fast-flowing Fraser River.

They said 300,000 people would be directly affected by an extreme flood, with ripple effects impacting 2.2 million residents in the region, destroying First Nations' land and putting a major dent in the province's economy.

The area stretches from Hope to Richmond and White Rock to Squamish.

A total of 25 local governments and four provincial ministries have pooled funds with the federal government and 10 private-sector and industry associations to generate $500,000 to cover the first phase of a plan to deal with the flood threat.

"We're not as fully prepared for existing flood hazards as we think we are," said Steve Litke, the council's senior program manager. "Those risks are likely to increase, and this initiative is intending to proactively prepare for and strengthen the level of protection."

Only one dyke in 15 currently installed meets B.C.'s provincial design standard, meaning the region is highly vulnerable, said David Park, who represents 13 Chambers of Commerce.

The planning process will occur in two phases, the first involving widespread analysis charting out flood scenarios, vulnerable spots and economic consequences. The second phase, intended to begin in 2016 and with no set deadline, will establish a regional strategy and action plan.

Litke said implementing the actual recommendations could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

"While we've been successful in funding Phase One of this work, it was a much more modest request," Litke said. "We hope that it will lead to strengthening the dyking systems but we can't promise that because we can't be sure that the funds will flow."

River forecasters don't foresee the river overflowing this year, but there's no certainty beyond that, Litke said. The perfect storm would combine a cool spring where the snow pack sticks around until sudden, hot weather triggers a rapid melt, coupled with heavy rains.

A 2014 study commissioned by the province points to sea level rise and climate change in positing that by the end of this century, a one in 50-year flood could reach the same magnitude as washouts currently returning every 200 or 500 years. Base sea level is projected to rise about one metre in B.C. by 2100.

A great flood, from coastal or river waters, has the potential to become the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, said B.C. Attorney General Suzanne Anton.

"The cost of responding to a major flood event far outweighs the costs of effective planning," she said.

Grand Chief Doug Kelly, president of the Sto:lo Tribal Council, said First Nations groups will "absolutely" lend support, especially because most of his communities are not protected by dykes.

A flood plan will involve more than science, Kelly said.

"You have to talk to the people who live on the river. You have to be informed by what it is they do and what they know."

He said that a few years ago, a Fisheries Department worker visited him along the swollen river near Cultus Lake and pulled out his laptop.

The worker rejected Kelly's claim that the river had crested so high a day earlier that he'd nearly been knocked out by a tree and swept away.

He finally convinced the man by pointing out a massive logjam, Kelly said.

"There are things that happen that you're not going to account for with your cute little software programs," he told the gathering.

The council will release progress reports, with a final report on Phase One in 2015.

Follow @TamsynBurgmann on Twitter

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