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Sumas Lake film from early 2021 asks: What happens if Barrowtown pumps in Abbotsford fail?

Director Amanda Christmas was shocked that hypothetical situation almost became reality
Amanda Christmas stands by the Sumas River during the filming in February 2021 of the short documentary Lost Lake: Gone but not Forgotten. (Photo by Amanda Christmas)

A Lower Mainland director who released a short documentary about Abbotsford’s Sumas Lake earlier this year was shocked when one of the film’s questions was almost put to the test: What would happen if the Barrowtown Pump Station failed?

Amanda Christmas of Coquitlam released the documentary Lost Lake: Gone but not Forgotten through her production company Bricklight Films earlier this year.

The film takes a historical look at the draining of Sumas Lake and a hypothetical situation in which the pumps fail.

“We look at, if this pump broke or the Barrowtown pumps shut down and we couldn’t repair it, what would be the fallout? And the fallout is the water comes back within 48 hours,” Christmas said.

She and her business and life partner Blake Vanderheyden came up with the topic while trying to figure out ways to travel around B.C. during the pandemic.

The pair are avid outdoors people and wanted to do some small pieces about the environmental histories of certain towns.

“We were looking into the Fraser River and how we’ve affected its flow, and then I came across an article about Sumas Lake … So we were like, ‘What’s Sumas Lake? This must be a small little lake we’ve never heard of because we can’t get to it,’ ” Christmas said.

RELATED: Fraser Valley’s lost lake was at centre of local life for centuries: new book

Further research led the pair to the book Before We Lost the Lake by Chad Reimer, who details how Sumas Lake was the centre of local culture and life for thousands of years before being drained in the early 1920s.

Waters from the lake are now funnelled to the Fraser River through the Barrowtown Pump Station.

The topic interested Christmas and Vanderheyden, and they decided to turn it into a small documentary with plans to later fund a larger project about the lake.

The filmed all their footage in one day, and released it on Feb. 14. It garnered about 700 views in its first nine months.

The pair never expected their film to become a reality – at least so soon.

They were immersed in the news reports when the first atmospheric river hit the region on Nov. 14-15, resulting in massive flooding after the Nooksack River in Washington State overflowed its banks and the Sumas diking system was breached.

Then came the desperate plea from Mayor Henry Braun on Nov. 16 that anyone who had not yet evacuated the Sumas Prairie should do so immediately because the Barrowtown Pump Station was at risk of failure.

RELATED: City of Abbotsford says ‘significant risk to life’ for those who stay on Sumas Prairie

Christmas said she and Vanderheyden stopped in their tracks when they heard the news.

“We both went ghost white because we had researched so much into this, and we had done so much work on what the fallout of that would be .. We just didn’t know what to do,” she said.

But the catastrophe did not transpire, and Braun reported the next day that the pump station had continued to operate overnight.

The documentary now has almost 63,000 views (as of Dec. 2) on YouTube.

Christmas and Vanderheyden have been busy filming follow-up footage, while in talks to obtain the rights to turn Reimer’s book into a documentary.

Christmas said the new film will focus heavily on prominent Indigenous elders and leaders.

“It’s not really my story to tell … and we’re trying to just recreate this beautiful story of the Sumas way, and their connections with the Nooksack and Chilliwack and Coquitlam, and how they worked with the land instead of against it,” she said.

“And then the end of the documentary shows where we’re at today and how fighting nature’s not necessarily to our benefit … No matter how much we feel like we have a command over our environment, we really don’t.”

Christmas said production on the new film is expected to start early next year, with hopes of completion sometime late in 2022 or 2023.

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Blake Vanderheyden films at the Barrowtown Pump Station in Abbotsford for the short documentary Lost Lake: Gone but not Forgotten. (Photo: Amanda Christmas)

Vikki Hopes

About the Author: Vikki Hopes

I have been a journalist for almost 40 years, and have been at the Abbotsford News since 1991.
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