Six days after the flood, Harman Kaur and her husband took a drive past their area and found that thousands of their ruby-red blueberry bushes were still completely buried in the eerie, brown floodwaters.
Leaking pesticides swirled around the field. Garbage and gas tanks flowed past. The smell of fuel filled their noses.
“There was a complete layer of oil on top [of the water]”And we’re talking about what I could just see from the road,” said Kaur, 29, whose family has owned their farm in the Arnold area of Abbotsford, BC, for more than a decade.
“We do not even know what has entered the plants and the soil … God knows.”
Kaur and her husband are among the farmers concerned about the health of the valuable land in the Sumas prairie, now that hundreds of acres have lain in muddy flood waters for more than a week.
Pictures of oil, waste and jerry cans drifting through the water create the impression of an agricultural nightmare, but experts say it will be weeks before assessments can confirm exactly how the water has affected some of the most valued agricultural lands in the province.
Award-winning fields ‘like a war zone’, says respondent
Much of BC’s food production takes place in the Sumas Prairie, a low-lying part of the Fraser Valley about 90 miles east of Vancouver. The area is irresistible to some of the largest agricultural activities in the province for a combination of reasons: the fields are flat, there is a temperate climate all year round, and it is close to the big city.
But the earth also stands out.
The prairie was a shallow lake until it was drained in the 1920s, making the soil – the sand at the edge of the lake and clayey towards its center – particularly nutritious and suitable for dozens of varieties of vegetables, berries and livestock.
The city has warned that the water at the top of these fields is not safe.
“It’s full of gas, diesel, manure, manure … it smells of gas,” said Kevin Estrada, director of the Fraser Valley Angling Guides Association, whose team has taken waders and jet boats through the floodplain to help with emergency preparedness.
“It looks like a war zone out there.”
Floods will disrupt life in the earth
Experts will not speculate on how contaminated the soil may be before testing can be performed, but they know that extreme floods – toxic or not – will disrupt the ecosystem in the soil.
“There are a lot of different things going on … it’s going to be a long road,” said Rose Morrison, professor emerita at the University of the Fraser Valley, who has studied soil science and lived in Chilliwack, BC, for more than 40 years.
The weight of the water alone will push any available oxygen out of the ground, Morrison explained. The lack of air will starve the roots of the plants and kill dozens of beneficial bacteria, fungi and earthworms that live below the surface.
Flooding water can erode and wash away critical topsoil – the most important, organic part of the soil – and disperse it elsewhere, such as in the nearby Fraser River.
“The pollutants may not be in place anymore. They may actually be in our nearby aquatic ecosystems,” said Sean Smukler, an associate professor and agricultural ecologist at the University of British Columbia.
Some fields will do better than others, Morrison added. Some soils will drain better, some plants will be better at neutralizing chemicals and some areas will have better water flow to dilute pollutants.
Morrison has every belief that the farmers have the skill, knowledge and technology to restore the fields when the time comes.
“The farmers on Sumas Flats are extremely good farmers … we know that when it comes to rebuilding them after this devastating effect, we will be in good hands,” she said.
“The land is the farmer’s livelihood, they are not going to take chances with it.”
The province is putting together teams for testing
The province has assembled a team of soil scientists to assess the soil’s viability in the wake of the floods, but that work cannot begin until the water recedes. The ministry said the work is likely to take weeks.
“It’s an incredibly sad mess we have,” Agriculture Secretary Lana Popham said in an interview with CBC on Wednesday.
“Contaminated water rests on good growing areas and those lands need to be rehabilitated.”
The cost of soil sampling, testing and analysis can run into the thousands of dollars for a few acres depending on the type of chemicals being tested for, Smukler said.
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After the water finally withdrew from Kaur’s property, she and her husband returned Tuesday to find the red blueberry bushes had been left covered with a layer of gray manure. The buds of the plants, where fruit is supposed to appear, were mixed with silt and dirt. The top soil was gone, and in some places the bare roots were covered with a sticky, blue-green material they could not even identify.
The answers will come soon enough.
“Honestly, I’m afraid my bushes are just falling down,” Kaur said.