A new report claims the City of Merritt and officials with the British Columbia government were aware of significant problems with dikes years before the 2021 atmospheric river that flooded and devastated the community.
The documents obtained through a freedom of information request by the B.C. office of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives include more than 5,000 pages that show that for four years beginning in 2018, inspection reports filed by the City of Merritt to the provincial inspector showed that the dikes were “structurally unsound”.
However, both provincial and municipal governments “did nothing to fix the City of Merritt’s seriously compromised front-line flood protection infrastructure,” Ben Partiff, a resource policy analyst at the B.C. office of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said in the report.
The documents obtained by the independent research institute include annual dike reports made between 2017 and 2021 for Merritt, Abbotsford, Princeton, Richmond and Chilliwack, as well as any communication and response between city officials and provincial dike inspector or their staff.
Under B.C.’s Dike Maintenance Act, dike maintenance is a municipal responsibility, but local diking authorities are required to file annual inspection reports with the provincial dike inspector. The provincial inspector is responsible to review those reports and order local authorities to take measures on the dike.
According to the report, documents show that back in 2017 the City of Merritt decided “not to hire a professional engineer and had one of its own employees do the dike inspection that year.”
The report from the 2017 dike inspection concluded that the city’s dike was “providing good stability” to the structures. During the following years, the opposite conclusion was reported by Aaron Hahn, a professional engineer hired by the City to inspect its dikes.
Reports made by Hahn showed that “sections of the dike had been undercut or scoured by the river and that reinstating or reconstructing those dike sections was a high priority.”
He also said in his reports that the vegetation along sections of the dike had “severely compromised the integrity of the dike structure.”
Hahn’s June 2021 report, which would be the last report before flooding that happened in Merritt in November 2021, reiterated the same concerns.
Also in Hahn’s report, a map “flagged no less than 19 issues of concern on the left bank of the Coldwater River including evidence of a sinkhole near the dike, ‘severely eroded’ dike sections, ‘irregular’ dike crests and a ‘large slump’.”
A few months later the dikes’ structure failed after Merritt had heavy rains in November 2021, resulting in hundreds of residents losing their homes either temporarily or permanently.
As previously reported by the Herald in February 2023, Merritt received a $2 million disaster recovery fund to help with dike work along the Coldwater River. The provincial grant is part of the $23.4 million Community Emergency Preparedness Fund (CEPF) which aims to help communities better prepare for, mitigate and respond to climate-related emergencies.
But according to a comment from Mayor Mike Goetz on Partiff’s report, “the estimated cost to replace the dikes along the Nicola and Coldwater rivers ranges between $140 and $160 million”, much farther from the fund the City has received from the Province so far and collects in property taxes.
The Herald reached out to Mayor Goetz to comment on the report and he said the report “makes very obvious” that the provincial government needs to act on what is being reported and not ignore it.
“A city such as ours cannot be expected to foot the bill for these repairs, but can work with the provincial government to keep our community safe.”