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Endangering Canadian Agriculture & the Livelihoods of Farmers: Sumas Lake

In 2021, flooding in the Fraser Valley, British Columbia (Sumas Lake) caused millions in damages. This former lakebed holds some of the most fertile land in British Columbia (and Canada as a whole) and has been home to farms and ranches since it was drained in 1924. While calls for funding to conduct repairs have been denied by the federal government, researchers from the University of British Columbia and Aisha Estey, the President of the BC Conservative Party, have proposed a different solution – a “solution” with irreversible consequences.

In the recent proposal, a controversial idea was proposed: allowing Sumas Lake to revert to its natural state. This proposal, while appearing to offer a cheaper solution that has environmental benefits, raises significant concerns and severe consequences for the Fraser Valley region.

Sumas Lake was drained in the early 20th century for agricultural purposes. This human intervention transformed the area into fertile farmland and has played a crucial role in British Columbia’s food production and agricultural economy over the last many decades.

The recent proposal suggests returning Sumas Lake to its natural state, essentially flooding the drained land. This “solution” is being promoted as a method that could help restore natural habitats, increase biodiversity, and mitigate some environmental challenges such as water scarcity and declining ecosystems.

While the proposal may seem appealing on the surface, closer examination reveals several significant problems:

  • Economic Impact: Reverting Sumas Lake would take away valuable farmland, jeopardizing the livelihoods of farmers and agricultural communities. The Fraser Valley is a key agricultural region that contributes substantially to British Columbia’s larger economy, and flooding this land will result in significant financial losses and disruption of food production.
  • Infrastructure Vulnerability: The Fraser Valley is densely populated, with numerous towns and cities built on the drained land. Flooding would lead to extensive damage to infrastructure including roads, bridges, and buildings, which will result in economic and logistical challenges for residents and local businesses.
  • Water Management Challenges: The Fraser Valley already faces water management issues, including flooding during heavy rainfall and concerns about water quality. Reverting Sumas Lake will only exacerbate these challenges by placing additional strain on water management systems and increasing the risk of flooding in surrounding areas.
  • Displacing Canadians: Flooding the Fraser Valley would displace residents and communities, forcing them to relocate at large while disrupting social networks and cultural heritage. The human cost of this displacement cannot be overlooked and must be carefully considered in any decision-making process.

While the idea of reverting Sumas Lake may hold some appeal from an environmental perspective, the potential risks and consequences are substantial. Any decision regarding the future of Sumas Lake must consider the complex logistics of economic, environmental, and social factors. 

The economic impact of future lost revenue due to a managed retreat would result in perpetual financial loss. Original research from June 3, 2024, indicates that the authors of the proposal did not account for the long-term economic impact of lost agricultural revenue. The decision to manage retreat would have a profound and ongoing economic consequence, making the $1 billion buyout far less appealing when considering the significant and lasting financial loss of agricultural productivity.

The Fraser Valley Regional District, which includes the former Sumas Lake area, has approximately 2,850 farms, a significant portion of which are in the Sumas Prairie (part of the former Sumas Lake area). Being one of British Columbia’s most productive agricultural regions, these farms produce more than $1.4 billion in revenue each year.

To provide an indication on the size of economic activity, the areas directly impacted by flooding accounted for 0.9% of British Columbia’s GDP in 2018 – further breaking it down by region, impacted areas account for 15% of the Fraser Valley economy, 4.6% of the Thompson-Nicola region economy, and 6.2% of the Okanagan-Similkameen region economy. The flood-impacted areas also make up an important share of animal herds and avian flocks in the province – more than 670,000 livestock were killed during the flooding in 2021.

Looking at food volume, the Fraser Valley produces significant volumes of various agricultural products, a significant portion of which come from the Sumas Prairie. Annually, the most significant of these volumes quantify to about 800 million litres of milk, 150 million kilograms of chicken and turkey meat, and more than 50,000 metric tonnes of berries. Additionally, the Sumas Prairie alone also produces more than an estimated 75,000 metric tonnes of various fruits and vegetables.

While the estimated cost to buy out all of the land and revert to the lake is around $1 billion, repairs to the dykes and a new pump station are estimated to cost $2.4 billion. At face value, the buyout makes sense, but the higher upfront expenditure represents a long-term investment in protecting the region’s agricultural assets and infrastructure. The repair approach preserves the economic stability and growth potential of the Fraser Valley, making it a more financially sound strategy compared to the irreversible consequences of reverting Sumas Lake.

Further, agricultural security is a matter of strategic national interest, especially in a context where foreign buyers have acquired significant portions of Canadian farmland. This raises a crucial question about whether the proposed managed retreat of Sumas Lake aligns with the national interest of protecting Canada’s vital agricultural resources. The Fraser Valley, including the fertile Sumas Prairie, plays a pivotal role in the country’s food production and agricultural economy. Sacrificing this land by reverting it to a lake would undermine national food security, reduce domestic agricultural output, and increase dependency on foreign-owned agricultural operations.

Amidst discussions surrounding the proposal to revert Sumas Lake, it begs the question: Why is our country seemingly ready to allocate funds for various projects and foreign initiatives, yet consistently overlooking the needs of hard-working Canadians? While there is no denying the importance of environmental conservation and investment in sustainable practices, it is crucial to prioritize the well-being of individuals and communities directly impacted by such decisions.

They aren’t just farms and buildings with a number attached to them – the Fraser Valley region holds the legacies and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of hard-working Canadians along with a significant portion of British Columbia’s agricultural economy.

Added on June 21, 2024: On June 19, 2024, a renowned consulting engineering firm retained by the City of Abbotsford released a report on their post-flooding analysis of Sumas Prairie with a specific view of reducing flood risk for residents, businesses, and agricultural properties. If you are interested, that report can be seen by clicking here.