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Caldwell Road residents face rising waters of Elizabeth Lake

Deb Kopak, a resident of Caldwell Road, is pictured by her property just outside Cranbrook, which is rapidly getting inundated by the rising waters of Elizabeth Lake. In recent days Kopak has had to evacuate her horses and move vehicles off of the backyard property as quickly as possible before they are trapped. The households along Caldwell Road say they have never seen the water rising so high and so quickly. - Barry Coulter photo
Deb Kopak, a resident of Caldwell Road, is pictured by her property just outside Cranbrook, which is rapidly getting inundated by the rising waters of Elizabeth Lake. In recent days Kopak has had to evacuate her horses and move vehicles off of the backyard property as quickly as possible before they are trapped. The households along Caldwell Road say they have never seen the water rising so high and so quickly.
— image credit: Barry Coulter photo

The residents of Caldwell Road on the western edge of Cranbrook are watching with alarm as water encroaches on their properties.

Eight households line the frontage road beside the highway leaving town to the southwest. Their backyards are acres of pastureland, which are homes for horses, places for car collections and recreational vehicles, outbuildings and barns, even storage for friends' large personal items. Farther beyond is Elizabeth Lake, a famous wetland and wildlife sanctuary.

Deb Kopak, one of the residents who has lived on Caldwell Road for 25 years, says a weir was put in place in the 1930s. A new weir was installed two years ago, and ever since then, the waters have risen into their property, getting worse every year, she said.

"It has never, ever been so bad," Kopak said. "We've always had a little bit of water, but this is ridiculous. The water is literally rising by the hour."

Kopak owns five horses, which are stabled in her backyard. Also, she stores a motorhome and several travel trailers for friends. These vehicles were trapped and surrounded by water, though she was eventually able to get them out of the mud up on to drier land. Kopak has also had to evacuate her horses as the rising water flooded out the stable, and left them roaming the pasture in water up to their shins.

"I've never had to relocate horses before," Kopak said. "I can't even get to my barn. Thank God for good friends (who can take the horses)."

Kopak's neighbours are in the same boat. One neighbour brings in firewood by the semi-load, for example, Kopak said. That wood is all under water.

And Jerry Tames' has a valuable collection of classic cars, also trapped, which he is trying to get up onto his lawn. But the ground has become so saturated that getting a tractor in is difficult.

Tames says toilets aren't flushing properly, and he's worried about sewage backing up into his 45-foot well.

"This has always been farmland," Tames said. "It's never been a swamp. The bird sanctuary has gradually been getting bigger and bigger."

Tames used the example of what used to be the Silver Ridge sawmill many years ago, on the eastern side of the lake. "It's now underwater," he said.

The situation is made more complicated by the fact that various levels of government oversee different aspects. Cranbrook Mayor Wayne Stetski said that three levels of government — the Province, the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) and the City of Cranbrook — have met several times over recent days to discuss options.

Elizabeth Lake is fed from the west by underground springs and creeks, including a creek from Jimsmith Lake and Silver Creek. The water sources feeding the creek are in the purview of the RDEK. But the lake drains to the northeast into Cranbrook to Joseph Creek, via a creek/culvert system.

Water from the lake goes through a culvert under Wattsville Road, into a creek which runs past the old waterslide site and the Heritage Motel. In recent days, the City has had big pumps out behind Elizabeth Lake Lodge, pumping water out of the lake, across Wattsville Road and into the creek, to help keep the lake level down.

Cranbrook Mayor Wayne Stetski said that as of Tuesday, the City has been pumping water out of the east end of the lake for over a week now.

"We have burned out two pumps, one is still running, and we are trying to get two more out of the Elk Valley," Stetski said in an email.

He said the City is doing all that it can to reduce the water level in Elizabeth Lake without also putting downstream Cranbrook residents at risk of flooding.

"The City can only take as much water out of the lake as the downstream channels can handle, as we do not want to put any city residents or property at risk," he added.

The creek crosses under the highway, and runs along past the Columbia Greenhouses and the FasGas station, before going underground past the Prestige. The creek re-emerges in the little park between the Prestige and the railway museum, before going underground and crossing the highway again, where it runs underground until emptying into Joseph Creek.

The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure manages the culverts that go under the highway.

Tames said parts of this infrastructure can no longer handle the lake drainage. Plus, the culverts are continually being plugged with debris like old cattails and garbage. Tames has been cleaning some of them out.

"The banks should be cleaned up and rocked all the way along," Tames said. "And the litter should be cleared away.

"I've been finding plastic bags, gallon jugs, bottles, steel pipes, tree branches ..."

The RDEK said in an email that it has been working with the City of Cranbrook, Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure and the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Water Stewardship Branch to identify contributing factors to the high water level in Elizabeth Lake this year.

This combination of factors include: the freeze/thaw cycles this winter, the wet spring, rapid melt in mid-March, high groundwater table, and increased flow in Jimsmith Creek watershed which is still in freshet.

"A third pump was brought on line (Tuesday) to try to lower lake levels and the City of Cranbrook's public works staff have been actively monitoring the water levels and maintaining the pumps," wrote Loree Duczek, RDEK Communications Manager. "The RDEK is also monitoring water levels and progress on work underway daily. The culverts are being assessed and the goal is to bring the lake to a more acceptable level; however, as we have seen in other areas this spring, this could take some time given the current high lake and groundwater levels."

The RDEK said it will be looking at historic information to determine the high water level that won't compromise infrastructure and other improvements on properties adjacent to the lake, but will maintain the important eco-system that is Elizabeth Lake.

"This will help us have a better understanding of potential future measures," Duczek said.

"Our focus today remains on addressing the flooding at hand and the RDEK looks forward to continuing to work with the city, MOTI and Water Stewardship to that end.

"We want to thank the residents and businesses adjacent to Elizabeth Lake for their patience in dealing with the pumps and temporary closure on Wattsville Road. We also want to thank the City of Cranbrook public works staff, and the residents on Caldwell Road for their ongoing communication and understanding as we work to address the flooding and will continue to keep them informed of our progress."

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