A dam failure triggered a massive mudslide in western Canada's Okanagan wine country this past week, burying approximately 40 acres of vineyards and orchards under soil, rocks and debris, in some spots up to 25 feet deep. The slide destroyed five homes and blocked the region's main highway. Although no one was injured, property damages are estimated to be in the millions of dollars, and affected vintners and residents are now asking if the disaster could have been averted.
"My Chardonnay is under five feet of mud. You can't even see the top of the plants," said Rasoul Salehi, executive director of Enotecca Winery and Resorts, which manages the LaStella and Le Vieux Pin wineries. Enotecca's vineyard in the Okanagan's acclaimed Golden Mile grapegrowing zone was among the worst hit. The mud destroyed 3 acres of Moscato Bianco and Chardonnay vines, including some of the oldest vines in the valley, as well as winemaking equipment, vehicles and an outbuilding.
The mud flow began when an 80-year-old earthen dam on a nearby mountain reservoir burst Sunday afternoon after a month of heavy rains. At least 20,000 cubic meters of water – enough to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools – spilled, swiftly barreling down the mile-high mountain. Along the way, the wall of water picked up mud, trees and car-sized boulders, ultimately spilling a 200-yard-wide swath of debris over several miles of vineyards and cherry orchards.
Independent grower Kathy Mercier, who cultivates grapes for Toronto-based wine giant Andrew Peller Limited, suffered heavy losses on her seven-acre property. "Think of a giant lava flow, that's exactly what it looks like. And it stops right on top of my Merlot," said Mercier, who lost 1.5 acres of vines in the slide. Her home, a popular local bed & breakfast, was also crushed by the force of the debris flow and now lies in a field of mud, half-buried cars and splintered tree trunks.
"We planted that vineyard plant by plant on our hands and knees," she said. "Now we have nothing. This was our livelihood. It was our home. It was our dream. The only way into my house now is by crawling in through the bathroom window."
Digging out won't be easy. An estimated 260,000 cubic yards of mud and rock now covers this section of the Golden Mile, enough debris to fill 26,000 dump trucks. "Removing it isn't really an option. It's too expensive," said Dwayne Tannant, a geotechnical engineer who surveyed the damage. "But there might be a bit of a silver lining because the soil deposited is probably better than the stuff that was there before."
That's cold comfort, however, for growers like Mercier, many of whom have been denied insurance compensation for the disaster. Amid reports that local authorities were alerted to leakage at the aging reservoir two days prior to the spill, questions are now being raised about whether the dam was properly maintained. "If the dam was monitored, this wouldn't have happened," said Tannant. "Bigger dams are routinely checked. This was a smaller dam that just dropped off the radar."