Canadian Underwriter

Alberta moving to protect communities in and upstream of Calgary from severe flooding

October 27, 2015   by Canadian Underwriter

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The Government of Alberta has committed to funding flood protection measures along the Bow and Elbow Rivers to help prevent a repeat of the damage and devastation experienced in parts of Calgary and upstream communities during the severe flooding in June 2013.

Measures to help guard against the type of flooding in southern Alberta in June 2013

That flooding – the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, resulting in about $2 billion in insured losses, plus much more in economic losses – has spurred the Alberta government to move forward with provincial funding plans. The government will provide $297 million to ensure communities along the Elbow River are protected from a 2013-level flood, and $150 million to the City of Calgary over 10 years for local projects through the Alberta Community Resilience Program, the provincial government reported Monday.

“More than $6 billion in damage was inflicted on our infrastructure and economy,” during the 2013 flooding, environment and parks minister Shannon Phillips says in the statement issued by Alberta Environment and Parks.

“The floods of June 2013 were the largest natural disaster in Alberta’s history by almost every measure: the extent of the damage, the number of people affected, the financial cost. We cannot let a disaster of this magnitude happen again,” Phillips noted during a press conference.

Shannon Phillips

Calling it a “major infrastructure commitment,” the funding is meant to build flood defences to protect families and businesses from a repeat of 2013. “This investment will help safeguard our communities and economy against increasingly severe and frequent natural disasters,” Phillips (pictured left) notes in the government statement.

Having carefully weighed the options, the provincial government selected a number of flood-mitigation projects based on the advice of independent experts. These projects include the following:

  • building the Springbank Off-stream Reservoir;
  • funding local mitigation in Bragg Creek and Redwood Meadows; and
  • establishing the Bow River working group – chaired by the province and City of Calgary, with representation from rural municipalities, irrigation districts, local First Nations communities and other stakeholders – to assess water storage options within the Bow River Basin, looking at the impacts on both flood and drought protection.

“The Springbank off-stream reservoir, combined with local mitigation measures in Bragg Creek and Redwood Meadows, will provide protection against 2013-level flood volumes for communities situated along the Elbow River,” notes a government backgrounder on the Springbank reservoir.

“During flood conditions, a canal would carry water from the river to the off-stream reservoir,” the backgrounder notes. “When the flood subsides, a modified channel would release the water back to the Elbow River in a controlled manner.”

The backgrounder points out that “a recent flood damage assessment for the City of Calgary suggests that there is up to $942 million at risk on the Elbow River in the event of a 1-in-200 year flood.”

In its independent review of the options, the Dutch research foundation, Deltares, concluded the Springbank Off-stream Reservoir combined with local mitigation projects in Bragg Creek and Redwood Meadows was the way to go.

Deltares cited the reservoir’s “close proximity to Calgary, a shorter delivery timeline, less risk during construction, lower estimated costs and greater cost certainty, and less environmental impact,” notes the government statement.

“This option will protect everyone involved much quicker,” Phillips told reporters during the press conference (see audio clip). In addition, “because the Springbank project is located further down the river, it has a larger catchment area. This means it can respond to rain storms occurring over a significantly larger area by also managing water entering the Elbow River downstream of McLean Creek.”

The background adds that the Springbank reservoir is also “closer to operational response teams and access roads, and less vulnerable to damage during extreme weather events.”

Preliminary engineering work is already under way on the 70.2 million cubic metre Springbank Off-stream Reservoir, located about 15 km west of Calgary, notes the government statement. Preliminary engineering for work in Bragg Creek – which will consist of a system of dikes and drains – is complete and community engagement will begin soon, while additional flood mitigation requirements for Redwood Meadows will be determined after plans for Bragg Creek are finalized,” the statement adds.

“Both communities will see protection built to the 2013 level, plus freeboard,” the provincial government reports.

Naheed Nenshi

Welcoming the government’s announcement to protect downtown Calgary and flood-prone communities from a similar flood in the future, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi (pictured right) calls the reservoir and $150 million provincial funding for additional mitigation along rivers a significant step forward.

Citing the $150 million in funding for Calgary, “even though upstream storage is important, local mitigation provides a critical last line of defence,” Phillips noted during the press conference.

“Of course, much more work is required for flood mitigation and watershed management on both the Bow and Elbow rivers, and we look forward to working collaboratively with both the provincial and federal governments on this issue,” Nenshi says in the government statement.

“While this is an excellent first step to protecting downtown Calgary and residential communities, the city remains vulnerable on the Bow,” cautions Brenda Leeds Binder, co-president of the Calgary River Communities Action Group. “The Bow River working group has an important task ahead of it – and we sincerely hope it will propose solutions on an expedited basis.”

The provincial government reports that as part of the overall strategy for managing flood risk in Alberta, five new multi-year river hazard studies are now under way. Pointing out that about 525 km of river will be studied and mapped, the five studies will identify river hazards and produce new flood inundation and flood hazard maps for the Bow, Elbow, Sheep, Highwood and Peace Rivers.

“With decisions made and a new direction set, we can start working together to better protect our communities and reduce the risk of another 2013,” Phillips told reporters Monday.