Chris Kitt brushes off words like “heroics” when discussing how he and his neighbours saved the Barrowtown Pump Station a year ago.
They just saw a problem and worked on a solution, he explains, like they would in any situation.
“I knew my home was safe, and I knew there were people suffering in Sumas Prairie,” he says. “It was kind of the motivation for me to keep things going. We were putting in 18-hour days for the first few days.”
Most people will have never even seen the Barrowtown Pump Station, much less understand the important dual roles the infrastructure plays, one in agriculture irrigation and one in flood management.
It’s only ever noticed by the handful of people who live in Barrowtown, a dead-end neighbourhood at the most northeastern point of Abbotsford. When Sumas Lake existed, the area was a beachhead. The station is tucked at the base of Sumas Mountain, just north of Highway 1 and west of the Vedder Canal; out of sight, out of mind.
But all eyes were on the pump station last November, when an historic amount of water in both the Sumas River and the Sumas canal system pushed it into serious high gear. Everything hinged on that pump operating – and keeping its delicate wiring and sensitive electrical equipment dry.
With their own homes safe from flooding, thanks to a few extra feet in elevation, the residents rolled up their sleeves to help.
The city of Abbotsford was cut off from Barrowtown and the workers who run the equipment and computers at the station were commuting by boat.
The residents started out sandbagging, but quickly realized the job was going to require something more. They used one of their own excavators to barricade the main point of water entry into the building, which was a large garage door at the east side of the structure.
Kitt explains how the pump station works to regulate water flow throughout the Sumas Prairie and even beyond.
The Sumas River flows to the station’s reservoir, where four gates open and close as needed. It’s the river’s final point before converging with the Vedder Canal and then the Fraser River.
The water that used to form the Sumas Lake also ends up at Barrowtown, via the snaking – but well-planned – Sumas canal system. This diverted water system is used to irrigate the local farms. In wet weather, the station’s four pumps push that water out into the reservoir where it meets with the Sumas River and carries along to the Fraser River. And in dry weather, the pump can pull water from the Sumas River back into the canals.
The system has never had to deal with so much water in both waterways before. Gravity couldn’t drain the reservoir. The pressure was on.
And the four pumps worked harder than ever.
So did the residents of Barrowtown.
“It was fight or flight, and our neighbours and ourselves, we chose to fight,” he says. “We just knew if we had a chance to help, we would do it.”
And it’s a good thing they did, and that the city workers were able to find a way there. The giant pumps are electric and the building was taking on water. If they lost the Barrowtown pumps, there would still be floodwater on the Sumas Prairies today.
Eventually more help arrived, and they all worked through the night on Nov. 16, including the Canadian Armed Forces. In total, Kitt and the others worked on protecting the pump for about seven or eight days.
Kitt recalls the moment the dike breached and flooded the prairie. He was standing on the road, watching water pour through a hole when it just stopped, like a tap turning off. The water line receded back, fairly quickly.
About 20 minutes later he got a call that the dike had burst.
Like everyone else affected by the flood – whether farmer, resident, business owner or first responder – Kitt feels the anxiety when it rains. When he looks back, he says the real heroes of the Barrowtown Pump Station are the city workers who kept the machines working.
“They were on high for two weeks straight and they never had been on high for more than 15 minutes,” he said. “They did their jobs under pressure, and they did it amazingly. Our job wouldn’t have looked as good if they weren’t doing their job, too.”
Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.