Farmland in the Minnekhada lowlands is under constant threat of flooding, a consequence of a 130-year-old dike left in disrepair in northeast Coquitlam.
One family of agricultural land owners, partnered with the Kwikwetlem First Nation’s business arm, recently pitched a solution to city council: forget the dike, raise the land.
“It’s collapsing and it faces imminent failure,” said Wes Robinson, one of four brothers who own three large parcels in the area. “It’s our viewpoint that avoidance is no longer a viable option.”
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The Minnekhada Lowlands Project was presented to the city for the first time on Oct. 3. It proposes elevating the Robinson brothers’ properties to twice the height of the current dike, expanding the watercourses cutting through their lands to the Pitt River, and retiring the Coquitlam Diking District.
It’s a concept known as a “super dike,” and the City of Mission has similar plans for its vulnerable waterfront areas.
The group wants to allow local developers to deposit enough structural fill to raise 514 acres of land by 4.5 metres.
Tipping fees alone would be enough to pay for most of the project, and government grants are also available, said project manager Michaela Negrin, adding they are not asking the city for any funding.
They claim a myriad of benefits would follow, including improved agricultural yields, restoring the natural habitat and hydrology of channels and creeks, and expanding recreational opportunities along Deboville Slough Trail.
“We simply don’t need the district or the dike anymore,” Robinson said, noting their plan removes future cost of repair and risk of liability.
The project was given an estimated 10-year timeline for completion.
State of the current dike
The Coquitlam Diking District manages a 4.4-kilometre dike along the Pitt River, just south of Minnekhada Regional Park. It was built in 1894, and is 4.5-metres high.
The province conducted the Lower Mainland Dike Assessment in 2015, which gave the dike a “poor” rating. The report found the dike was too low, had consistently inadequate geometry, was seismically unstable, had suffered erosion damage and would likely fail prior to water levels overwhelming the dike.
The dike is one of 100 ‘orphaned dikes’ in B.C., meaning it is not actively maintained by any governing body.
Coquitlam City Manager Peter Steblin said the province tried to download responsibility for the dike onto the city four years ago, offering them an $8 million grant to take over and upgrade it.
City staff were “very concerned” at the time, and conducted a study which estimated the cost to upgrade would be at least double the province’s offer, according to Steblin.
Instead the city has offered to act as a contractor for the province should they choose to fund emergency repairs, but little work has taken place.
Robinson said they don’t feel they can invest in the land because it floods from groundwater pressure when the Pitt River rises, or when the dike catches runoff from Burke Mountain after rainfall.
He added the conditions will only worsen with climate change.
“The situation has put farmland, homes, businesses, infrastructure, recreation, wildlife and human life at great risk,” Robinson said.
Business, environmental, recreational potential
The project envisions major improvements to environmental sustainability, agricultural production and local recreation.
Allowing Metro Vancouver developers to deposit their fill in Coquitlam would be a cost-saving mechanism for local construction projects, while also reducing the industry’s carbon footprint, according to the delegation.
Robinson said that developers wanting to deposit fill currently have to pay for expensive hauls out to the Fraser Valley via truck, making a local site very attractive.
The project includes a plan to build a barge on the Pitt River’s foreshore to facilitate even more transportation of fill material.
Kwikwetlem First Nation Enterprises (KFNE) would manage the fill operation, along with habitat restoration. rewilding corridors, and recreational improvements through various subcontractors.
KFNE has managed its own wetland fill operation on the setɬamékmən reserve for many years, which is nearing completion.
The expansion of the water channels has the ability to re-create a natural habitat for a variety of species, including a spawning ground for sockeye salmon, said Jim Armstrong, the project’s environmental consultant.
He added they’ve been in contact with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) who are excited about its potential as salmon-enhancement projects are “extremely rare.”
“This is a project that you could only hope to dream up as an environmental scientist,” Armstrong said.
Deboville Slough Trail runs 4.4 kilometres directly over the dike and is currently used as a popular walking, biking and wildlife viewing route.
The proposed design increases the length of the trail to 10.7 kilometres and adds benches, picnic areas, and wayfinding and interpretive features, said Andrea Aleck of Salish Sage Developers, the project’s lead Indigenous consultations advisor.
“It has no amenities, no safety interventions, and virtually no maintenance,” Aleck said. “The multi-use path would no longer be the precipice of a failing dike, but an engineered boundary between elevated land and the re-wilded ravines.”
Armstrong added the trail needs to be closed until it is made safer, and recent temporary repairs are already suffering erosion.
All the land would be kept within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), and farming would start in sections of raised land that are completed after topsoil is re-added, said Peter Lapage of Salish Sage Developers.
He said the project would allow for newer agri-tech innovations that make more productive and sustainable use of the land, such as vertical farming.
The delegation was not seeking any approvals at this stage, but rather feedback, ideas for improvement, and support as they present the plan to other stakeholders
Council and staff were generally supportive of the idea, but wanted more details and a roadmap on how the group planned to consult and seek approval from the many provincial entities that would need to sign off on the project.
Steblin said the proposal was innovative, but the consultation process would be extensive. He added the city would only be a minor player.
Lapage said they’ve already made contact with many provincial offices, but may need council’s support in their application to the ALR, which have only allowed nominal fill on farmland since 2019.
He said the group imagines this will be the first of many meetings with the city as they move the project forward.