Tragic week of flooding causes havoc in BC, Merritt WWTP fails

On B.C.’s Highway 14, workers control the direction of traffic due to flooding. Photo Credit: BC Ministry of Transportation

Over the course of just more than a week, several British Columbia communities have been ravaged by more than a month’s worth of rainfall, some to the point of evacuation over flooding, which has led to widespread damage and the sidelining of key infrastructure like the City of Merritt’s wastewater treatment plant.

What many are calling a “once-in-a-lifetime” storm is on track to be one of the costliest natural disasters in Canadian history, even beyond Alberta’s Fort McMurray wildfires. And yet, rain and wet snow remain in the forecast.

Communities like Chilliwack, Hope, and Merritt, the latter of which is home to some 7,000 residents, are experiencing extreme flooding, landslides, and power outages. Add in the drought B.C. saw over the summer, wildfire activity, and other extreme weather that rocked the province this year, including a heat dome that killed hundreds of people, and a tornado that touched down near the University of British Columbia earlier this month, and the devastation in the province is approaching unprecedented levels.

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Atmospheric rivers, which are long, high plumes of water vapour that can travel through the sky and create incredibly intense rainfall, have also been gaining attention as culprits for the ongoing flooding, and are feared to become more common due to climate change.

Early last week, in Merritt, an evacuation order was issued for the entire city just two hours after the local wastewater treatment plant flooded. Located in B.C.’s southern Interior, around 200 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, local officials noted that the treatment plant’s failure meant that nobody was able to flush a toilet or shower without creating a major backup in the system.

Merritt’s WWTP (pictured) was inundated with flood waters last week and remains out of service. Photo Credit: City of Merritt

“Continued habitation of the community without sanitary services presents risk of mass sewage back-up and personal health risk,” stated the order issued by the city at 10:05 a.m. PT last Monday.

Two days after Merritt’s order, the entire province of B.C. declared a state of emergency over the flooding and mudslides, which have killed at least four people so far. The order is initially in effect for 14 days. There are approximately 17,775 people province-wide evacuated due to impacts from the flooding, with 5,918 properties on Evacuation Order, and 3,632 properties on Evacuation Alert.

Other communities, too, have experienced infrastructure failures, such as the City of Chilliwack, which had a breach in the Sumas River dike in Abbotsford. Floodgates were partially opened Saturday from the Sumas River to the Fraser River in Abbotsford, easing pressure on the city’s pump system.

In Merritt, flood waters inundated two bridges across the Coldwater River, and flood waters prevented access to the third, local officials said. The river continues to change course, carving a new channel and getting even closer to the WWTP’s infrastructure.

Merritt’s leaders said they are bringing in trained inspectors to begin a Rapid Damage Assessment of the properties directly affected by the floods. Nearly 50 volunteers conducted assessments over the weekend. Assessment inspectors will grade each property on a scale of green, yellow and red.

Sanitary lines are currently being flushed to remove debris and to allow flow back to the wastewater treatment plant.

“Regardless of what residents are reading on other media sites, residents should NOT be consuming water from their taps and should NOT be consuming boiled water,” Merritt officials posted online. “We need residents to know that this water has NOT been tested and is still under a ‘DO NOT CONSUME’ status through Interior Health. We will tell you as soon as this status changes.”

Crews are still conducting a series of inspections and tests on the drinking water system. Merritt officials say they hope to pressurize some sections of the system in areas that were not directly affected by flooding.

In an email sent out on November 19, the British Columbia Water & Waste Association (BCWWA) announced that the City of Merritt is in need of assistance from level one certified water operators, and is looking for help. The BCWWA is also offering to help other affected communities find support and services for their water systems. Click here to view their website contact page or call 604-433-4389.

There is currently no timeline for Merritt residents to return, and aid for residents has been slow as the crisis enters its second week.

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