—— By Josh Dawson/Castanet

 

The City of Merritt has received a $46.5 million commitment from the federal government to build new dikes to protect the community from flooding following the devastating atmospheric river of 2021, but it could be all for naught unless the province is willing to pony up another $21 million.

The federal funding was approved in January through the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program. It would fund the construction of two dikes as part of the city’s flood mitigation plan.

But the federal funds can only be administered with provincial guidance, and that’s where things get complicated for municipal officials in Merritt.

Sean Strang, the city’s director of flood recovery and mitigation, said the federal commitment could vanish if the land needed to build the dikes is not acquired by the municipality.

Can’t build dike without land

However, Strang said neither the federal funding or recently announced community emergency preparedness funding from the province can be used to acquire the land.

“Of course, we can’t build anything, we can’t use anything, can’t put rock down until we’re able to buy the private land underneath the proposed structure,” he said.

“The funding approval for the dike construction — if it doesn’t get done within five years of the disaster, and it’s not extended, then the province doesn’t get reimbursed by the feds, and the provincial government has to pay the whole $46 million.”

Strang said funding for the land acquisition hasn’t been identified in the province’s budgeting process, but the city will be meeting with ministry officials to discuss next steps.

He said the dikes damaged in the 2021 atmospheric river event can’t be rebuilt because they are no longer up to B.C. code — meaning the city can’t erect new dikes or rebuild its old ones.

According to Strang, 1,270 properties are currently in Merritt’s floodplain — putting thousands of residents and homes at potential risk if waters rise.

Mayor wants to see action

Merritt Mayor Mike Goetz said the city is looking for funding for the required land from the province. He said he’s hoping Victoria comes through so that the $46-million contribution from Ottawa does not go to waste.

“We’re working with all levels of government to get confirmation so we can get that money flowing and get those dikes fixed,” he said

Goetz said he is confident the funding for land acquisition will come, saying Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Bowinn Ma has been “very involved,” while he hasn’t yet heard from Nathan Cullen, minister of water, land and resource stewardship.

In a statement to Castanet, the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness said provincial staff would be meeting with city officials later this month.

“Recognizing the City of Merritt’s need for funding towards land acquisition to proceed with dike repairs, staff from the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship and the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness have a meeting with city officials later this month to explore the next steps,” the ministry said.

“Currently, local governments are the lead in decisions to move people, buildings and infrastructure from hazard-prone areas to reduce future risks, and this is not covered by existing federal funding mechanisms.”

The province has committed more than $63 million to flood recovery and resiliency in Merritt, including rebuilding the Middlesboro Bridge, securing interim housing and providing disaster financial assistance.

“Merritt has also applied for the federal Adaptation, Resilience and Disaster Mitigation, and Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund programs. A decision has not yet been announced by Canada on this funding,” the statement from the ministry said.

No policy exists in B.C.

Strang said part of the difficulty is that, as far as he is aware, B.C. doesn’t have a policy that outlines a land-acquisition process for flood mitigation work.

“B.C. is almost alone in this,” he said. “Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Quebec, Ontario, all of those provinces have previous policy and previous programs talking about land acquisition for flood mitigation.”

In a statement to Castanet, B.C.’s Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship said the province works directly with communities on their needs on a case-by-case basis, as each community has a locally developed flood management plan.

“As climate weather events lead to increased flooding, the province is reviewing its role in supporting community-led land acquisition to reduce flood risk,” the statement said.

The ministry announced a new flood strategy plan on Wednesday to help municipalities reduce risk and respond to extreme flooding events.

The plan focuses on assessing flood risks with floodplain mapping, increasing communication with local and First Nation governments, better preparing for floods and response and helping with flood resilience.

“I’m hopeful and happy to see that they have a commitment to executing things like our plan, but again, we need to see that there’s action and money behind the plan,” Strang said of the announcement.

“That’s a good start, but it doesn’t address the land component of it. So they’re telling people, ‘Hey, here’s a bunch of money for building dikes,’ but haven’t answered the basic question of where do you put them.”