Governments come together to build flood resilience in Nooksack, Sumas watersheds

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An international, multi-government agreement that commits to addressing flood risks and restoring salmon habitat in portions of British Columbia’s Fraser Valley and Washington state’s Whatcom County has been finalized.

The Transboundary Flood Initiative advances a collaborative framework to identify and pursue actions for flood-risk reduction and habitat restoration on the flood-prone Nooksack and Sumas watersheds.

The agreement was signed this week by representatives of nine governments – including B.C. Premier David Eby and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee – and by the Sumas, Matsqui and Leq’á:mel First Nations, the Nooksack Indian Tribe, Lummi Nation, the City of Abbotsford and Whatcom County, Wash.

“The atmospheric river event in November 2021 caused widespread damage and made it clear that collaboration with our southern neighbors is needed to prevent flooding and mitigate the risk of a similar climate disaster,” said Premier Eby. “By working together and combining our expertise, we can better protect people, their livelihoods and our communities.”

Gov. Inslee said: “The 2021 flooding devastated communities on both sides of the border and made clear we must plan for more disasters like this one fueled by climate change. We must work collaboratively with Tribes and local governments on both sides of the border to comprehensively address flooding in the Nooksack and Sumas watersheds, restore salmon habitat, and build community capacity against climate change. I appreciate the leadership and commitment by all parties to work collaboratively on this vital issue.”

The initiative’s goals are to collaboratively manage the flood risk from the Nooksack and Sumas rivers, while restoring important habitat and ecosystem function for fish and other critical aquatic species, and to advance cooperation and collaboration with Indigenous governments. It will work collaboratively to evaluate flood hazard, share data and research, and leverage funding opportunities to advance flood-mitigation projects.

“The flooding issue in the Nooksack and Sumas river watersheds is decades old, but November 2021 highlighted the need to reduce the impact of such catastrophic flooding events in the future,” said Bowinn Ma, Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness. “We know that climate change means we can expect these types of events to happen more frequently. That’s why this collaborative approach between neighbors is essential to finding long-term solutions.”

The Nooksack River flows through northern Washington state. When it overflows after heavy rains, it spills onto Sumas Prairie in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, which occurred during the atmospheric rivers of November 2021.

“Today marks an important cooperation between our governments to protect our communities and restore ecosystems,” said Sumas First Nation Chief Dalton Silver. “Semá:th embraces this as an opportunity to exercise our rights and fulfil our obligation to take care of S’ólh Téméxw – our land. We also look forward to working with all levels of government including the Nooksack, Lummi, Leq'á:mel, and Máthxwi peoples to protect our shared territories.”

The initiative has a three-tiered governance structure – leadership, policy and technical – which brings together people with specialized expertise to each table. The policy and technical experts have been meeting since September 2022. The first leadership meeting was held in June 2023 when the proposed framework was reviewed.

Together, the parties are working to:

  • develop long-term solutions to address more frequent and severe flooding of the Nooksack River caused by climate change;
  • bring together the necessary resources and relevant experts to help identify, evaluate and advance solutions;
  • spearhead the design of projects and programs and identify sources of funding; and
  • leverage opportunities for natural solutions that reduce flood risk and enhance habitat restoration.

Technical advancements addressing the Nooksack overflow risk to date include:

  • strengthened monitoring and communication about Nooksack River conditions by B.C.’s River Forecast Centre and counterparts in Washington state; and
  • expanded hydrologic modeling of the Nooksack and Sumas drainages and new flood-warning procedures for the Sumas River, utilizing information gleaned from the 2021 flood event.

In B.C., any flood-mitigation approaches and designs will align with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

Quick Facts:

  • A plan to develop a transboundary flood-resilience initiative was announced in March 2022 by then-Premier John Horgan and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in response to the atmospheric river event of November 2021.
  • The atmospheric rivers caused severe and widespread flooding and mudslides with little warning and was described by experts as a “once-in-a-century” event.
  • The damage to highways, infrastructure and properties makes the flooding one of the most expensive natural disasters in Canadian history.

A backgrounder follows.

Jimmy Smith
Deputy Communications Director
Office of the Premier

Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness
Media Relations
250 880-6430

Office of Gov. Jay Inslee
Media Relations


What people are saying about building flood resistance:

MLA Rick Glumac, Premier’s Liaison for the Pacific Northwest:

“We know that flooding and other natural disasters don’t recognize borders – that’s why this cross-border, multi-government agreement is so essential. The Transboundary Flood Initiative is made possible by the willingness of all affected parties to come together to reach long-term solutions to protect communities, fish habitat and ecosystems, local farmers and food producers, and critical infrastructure.”

Ross Siemens, mayor of Abbotsford:

“As we approach two years since the devastating November 2021 flood, it’s more important than ever that we work together to find solutions that better protect our residents, transportation and trade routes, as well as the agriculture sector, which supports the Pacific Northwest’s food system from similar flooding in the future. This collaborative framework, and most importantly the actions that are to follow, are a significant step in mitigating the flooding risk on both sides of the border, and we are eager to work with all our partners on developing this plan and increasing the flood resiliency of all our communities.”

RoseMary LeClair, chairwoman, Nooksack Tribe:

“The November 2021 flooding was very destructive and we are committing to jointly reducing future flood risks and to measurably improving water quality and ecosystem health in the Nooksack and Sumas watersheds. We look forward to working with our friends and relatives on both sides of the border to achieve these goals.”

Lummi Nation:

“The Lummi Indian Business Council has been working to build flood mitigation and flood reliance on and near the Reservation for decades. This includes protecting people, infrastructure, natural and cultural resources.  We think there are many different actions that will be needed to build flood-resilient communities, especially considering that climate change is making big floods more frequent and more severe. These actions require good co-ordination and communication, and the Transboundary Flood Initiative is dedicated to this effort.” 

Satpal Sidhu, Whatcom County executive:

“Keeping our people safe, protecting property and preserving our livelihoods and cultures are the most basic responsibilities of government. This agreement is important because it provides a collaborative framework for resolving our shared flooding issues and preparing ourselves for a future where extreme weather events may become more frequent. For the past two years, our technical experts have been busy working on solutions, and with this agreement in place we have a clear pathway for aligning our values, strategies and plans on both sides of the border.”

Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness
Media Relations
250 880-6430

Office of Gov. Jay Inslee
Media Relations