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Calgary blindsided by Premier Prentice's flood mitigation plan

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Image: Flickr/James Tworow

It started with another "feel good" press release.

On Wed Sept 24, 2014, Premier Prentice announced that he was proceeding with two flood mitigation projects. He'll divert the Highwood River to protect High River and create a dry reservoir in the Springbank area to protect Calgary.

Then it all went pear-shaped.

"Don't Damn Springbank"

The residents, businesses and community organizations in Springbank, Bragg Creek and Redwood Meadows roundly condemned the Springbank dry reservoir project.*

They rejected Mr Prentice's assertion that it was better than the original proposal pointing out that one community should not be destroyed to protect another.

They said there had been inadequate public consultation and they were not satisfied with Mr Prentice's promise that they'd be fully compensated for the damage to their property or livelihoods.

They characterized Mr Prentice's decision as a matter of political expediency.

They've formed an action group called  "Don't Damn Springbank". Its mission is to motivate the government to pursue more effective, natural, and environmentally responsible flood mitigation projects without destructive impacts to any community.

In other words, they've thrown down the gauntlet.  

Nenshi blind-sided

Mayor Nenshi expressed "surprise" at the announcement. No doubt after he peeled himself off the ceiling.

He issued a rebuttal press release setting out his "initial observations" which are:

  • The Springbank solution is a significant departure from the previous plan which provides a comprehensive water management plan.  It had never been discussed with the City (the Mayor and his team had been blind-sided).
  • The Springbank solution is incomplete. The Premier can't demonstrate that it's the most cost-effective solution because the analysis of two related projects -- the McLean Creek dry dam and the Glenmore Reservoir diversion tunnel -- is not yet complete.
  • The Springbank solution may not be sufficient. Mayor Nenshi challenged the Premier to produce engineering studies demonstrating that the Springbank solution would protect the City given the Government of Canada's finding that the 1:100 year standard is no longer appropriate.

Given the magnitude of the devastation caused by the 2005 and 2013 floods, one could be forgiven for expecting Mr. Prentice to handle flood mitigation file with greater care and humility. But then again, his unelected Education Minister is running in the Calgary-Elbow by-election and is in desperate need of talking points.

The real "Room for the River" programme

Mr. Prentice's press release describes the Springbank dry reservoir as a "Room for the River'" program and includes a sidebar with this link: Netherlands "Room for the River" programme  thus creating the impression that the Springbank solution is founded on the Dutch experience.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Dutch government embarked on the "Room for the River" programme after the Rhine River threatened to breach its dikes in 1993 and 1995. Two hundred and fifty thousand residents were evacuated.

Instead of following 800 years of traditional flood mitigation (strengthening the dikes), the Dutch did something truly innovative -- they brought together 17 partners (provinces, municipalities, water boards, etc) to make "room for the river" by moving dikes, digging new water channels and improving the quality of the physical and urban landscape.

The ambitious programme commenced in 2006 and will be completed in 2015. It will cost 2.2 Billion Euros.

Thoughtful transformation

The transformation of the 2000 year old city of Nijmegen is a testament to the success of the government's approach. Nijmegen is one of 39 locations that will make "room for the river". It will move a dike 350 meters inland and develop a new channel (suitable for rowing and sailing) for the river Waal. A new urban river park will be created in the heart of the city. It will feature floating restaurants and a marina. The quality of the redesign won Nijmegen a spot on the World Cities list.

Fifty houses were demolished. The process was difficult but the government allowed sufficient time for consultation and negotiation to bring the residents on board.  The cost of redevelopment will be $460 million.

Slap-dash transformation

Admittedly Alberta is not the Netherlands and Springbank is not Nijmegen, but surely Premier Prentice took more from the Dutch "Room for the River" programme than its name.

The Dutch experience demonstrates that comprehensive scientific and economic analysis and meaningful consultation are critical to the creation of a successful flood mitigation strategy.

Mr. Prentice's attempt to short-circuit the process by arguing "Government involves tough decision and tough choices"* is an excuse, not a justification, for a $200 million project that will impact the lives of Albertans now and into the future.

Alberta's flood mitigation strategy deserves sober second thought, not hasty decisions aimed at propping up an unelected cabinet minister.


Image: Flickr/James Tworow

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