The Kettle River had already made its way into Darren Henshaw’s Johnson Flats property by the time sandbagging started, but a team worked quickly to stem the flow. (Jensen Edwards/Grand Forks Gazette)

‘Not technically feasible’: Grand Forks volunteers stack sandbags to fill in damaged dike

Residents hoped governments would do emergency repairs, but learned Sunday that it was up to them

More than a dozen volunteers slogged back and forth across a mucky field Sunday to blockade Grand Forks’ Johnson Flats neighbourhood against the Kettle River, all while a loader and an excavator sat idle just metres away.

“It’s ironic, there’s a small army of people working by hand when there’s the equipment right there,” said Johnson Flats resident Darren Henshaw around 3 p.m. Sunday.

The machines halted work on Henshaw’s property Saturday night, after the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary (RDKB) and officials from the B.C. Ministry of Environment determined that the equipment could not be used to block up the damaged river bank. Meanwhile, heavy morning rainstorms Saturday and Sunday in the Boundary fed the Kettle River and raised the water level, inch by inch.

Mark Stephens, manager of emergency operations for the RDKB, said Sunday that they could not get approval from the diking authority to build a structure, nor could they get funding.

“We have had professionals on site looking at the possibility of installing a variety of structures and have made the joint decision with provincial staff that the risks of back-watering, ground water and creating a whole new channel path for the river by installing anything on this site are too great,” Stephens said in a Sunday afternoon release. “This is a very difficult site from a hydrological standpoint.” An RDKB tweet called any substantial emergency work “not technically feasible.”

According to residents, the approximately 30-metre section of the river bank was damaged in 2018 when the river tore out trees, roots and all, and washed away a section of a decades-old berm. Henshaw and his neighbours say that they would not be rerouting the river to a new channel with a more permanent repair, but simply be restoring what existed before 2018.

As for who is responsible for maintaining the old berm, a provincial spokesperson told The Gazette on May 21 that the structure in question “is most likely an orphan dike,” meaning that it was likely constructed under emergency circumstances before and is not monitored by a diking authority. While the province said that the adjacent property owner is not responsible for maintaining the structure, it asks that “local emergency plans should address any specific risks that may be associated with these works.”

So, without institutional support beyond the provision of sand and burlap sacks, residents and volunteers got to work Sunday afternoon.

After completing a sandbag wall around another home in Johnson Flats, volunteers including Gabe and Rachel Warriner – who have helped lead sandbagging efforts in Grand Forks this freshet season – arrived at Henshaw’s around 3 p.m. Load by load, the team passed water-logged burlap bags of sand down the line, piling them against the rising water, in an effort to stop the Kettle River from flooding over Johnson Flats for the second time in two weeks.

“It’s not a million-dollar fix,” said Carol McQuarrie, Henshaw’s neighbour.

When the Kettle River first crested on May 19, water flowed through the damaged berm and across McQuarrie’s property as the water followed a low-lying shortcut across the southeast corner of the neighbourhood, before rejoining the mainstream.

In 2018, flooding covered McQuarrie’s yard with more than a metre of water as the current slammed debris between the wires of her chainlink fence. This year McQuarrie’s property, east of Henshaw’s and also on the river, is lined with a metre-high berm of sandbags, built by friends and volunteers on May 30 and ready to withstand waters higher than those predicted.

Though she’s more comfortable this year, “it is so disheartening,” McQuarrie said Sunday afternoon about not seeing anything concrete being done to repair the 2018 damage to the riverbank. “We’re stressed and we’ve had it.”

“We’re not a huge community,” said Len Waddell, McQuarrie’s partner, “but we’re still a community that needs help.”

At the end of the day, McQuarrie said she and her neighbours on Beatrice Street just want to see action. “Don’t tell me you’re going to study that river one more time,” she said. “We have no advocate.”

McQuarrie, along with five other neighbours on Beatrice Street in Grand Forks, were issued evacuation orders Sunday afternoon when, for the second time in two weeks, the RDKB warned that the Kettle River would breach its banks, while residents hope a long line of stacked sandbags – several soggy and achy hours of volunteer work – may help mitigate that risk.

On Sunday night, the RDKB warned that the river would pose “a moderate flood risk for the region overall [by the afternoon of June 1] but high risk for low-lying properties” in Johnson Flats and Manly Meadows, as the water would threaten to cut of road access.

This story was last updated at 9:00 a.m. on June 2. At that time, the sandbag berm was still above water, but Henshaw said that some water had begun seeping around the edges of the berm and northeast across his property. Volunteers were onsite by 3:45 June 1, piling more sandbags. They stayed well after the sun went down, continuing to reinforce the berm until around 11 p.m.

McQuarrie and Waddell moved their truck and fifth-wheel to a friend’s house on the opposite bank Sunday.


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Quick feet keep sandbag haulers and wheelbarrows from getting lodged in the mud. (Jensen Edwards/Grand Forks Gazette)

Darren Henshaw, right, looks over the sandbag berm volunteers built on May 31. (Jensen Edwards/Grand Forks Gazette)

Because moving sand for hours on end isn’t tiring enough, volunteers have some fun while waiting for more bags to arrive. (Jensen Edwards/Grand Forks Gazette)

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