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In today’s Okanagan flood water, a reflection of 67-year-old history

In 1951, floods north of Oliver led to the government blowing out the highway to relieve pressure
Water rushing down Sportsmens Bowl Road near the junction with Highway 97 spills over stacks of sandbags, even as B.C. Wildfire Service crews work to bolster the area’s barriers. Dustin Godfrey/Western News

As flooding continues to build up in rural Oliver, a local man’s fears of a Highway 97 washout, and the potential implications of that, are not without context.

However, for that context, one has to go back into the region’s history, when the highway was taken out to increase water flow. Way back, in fact, to March 1, 1951, when the snowpack in the region’s mountains was 140 per cent of normal — a figure that nearly matches the snowpack currently reported in the Okanagan at 152 per cent of normal.

Related: Rural Oliver man hopes for Highway 97 culvert relief

“The water content in the snowpack at each of the snow courses measured is already greater than that measured at the end of March in 1950 and 1948,” reads an Oliver Chronicle clipping from March 21, 1951, provided by the Oliver and District Heritage Society.

“If this trend of precipitation continues, a runoff much above normal can be anticipated.”

The clipping was a statement from the B.C. Snow Survey Bulletin, which went on to say that the threat of flooding in the B.C. Interior, including Columbia, Kootenay, Okanagan and Similkameen regions, “can be a serious threat.”

“The flood potential is already established by the very high snow water contents and if precipitation continues in these basins at normal or above normal rates during the rest of the accumulation period, a very serious flood potential will exist.”

Indeed, a month-and-a-half after that article was published, that serious flood potential was realized.

“Last Sunday, a section of the highway north of Oliver had to be blasted out to release spring runoff water from Myers’ Flats,” reads another Oliver Chronicle clipping, this time from May 2, 1951. “The culverts beneath the highway were not adequate to carry the flow, and plugging further restricted their carrying capacity.”

That may sound familiar to present-day residents of Willowbrook, who have already had two roads dug out to mitigate flooding in the community. And at the Highway 97 culvert at the junction with Sportsmens Bowl Road, an area that has seen evacuation alerts issued to nearly 150 properties, at least one nearby resident is worried about a repeat of history.

Arnie Nazaroff, who lives directly across the road from Sportsmens Bowl Road and who has already had some flooding in his and his mother’s houses, said this week that a potential washout of the highway is worrying.

“The ministry is continuing to monitor the area closely, and staff are doing everything possible to keep the water contained and Sportsmens Bowl Road at Highway 97 open,” the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said Friday in a news release. “People’s safety is our top priority, and the ministry will close the road if conditions worsen and it is no longer safe for motorists.”

Anyone who sees any signs of compromise in the highway is asked to call the ministry’s emergency line at 1-800-663-7623.

Back to 1951, the high water continued to be a threat along the Okanagan River, with a local project manager at the time demanding the water be slowed down at Penticton to mitigate flooding.

“Unless something is done very soon, the flood situation will be more serious than in 1948 — and McIntyre Creek has not yet started to make its runoff,” a May 9, 1951 Chronicle article reads.

And by the next year, the International Joint Commission, which oversees water issues between the U.S. and Canada, made recommendations to Ottawa in connection with a proposed Okanagan Flood Control project.

The project was endorsed by both the Canadian and U.S. counterparts of the panel, according to a March 5, 1952 article in the Oliver Chronicle. Lester B. Pearson, the secretary of state for external affairs at the time, noted that the commission had urged the project proceed “as soon as practicable.”

That project included the channelization of the Okanagan River near Penticton, a now-iconic part of tourism and summer activities in the South Okanagan.

But that flood mitigation measure has not solved all issues. The dam at the onset of the Okanagan River Channel was a source of some controversy last summer. After precipitation came late in the spring, along with a heavy freshet from the mountains, officials couldn’t release water from the dam fast enough in May to mitigate flooding upstream.

Even as July approached last year, the water was still running too fast, and officials warned against tubing in the channel, while Coyote Cruises still had not opened its shuttle service for tubers.

As for Highway 97, Brandy Maslowski said Thursday the province is looking at a permanent solution for the build-up of water at Sportsmens Bowl Road, rather than emergency pumping.

However, that solution has yet to be determined.

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Dustin Godfrey | Reporter
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