Temperatures hit 36 degrees in Calgary this week. Photo: Rob Moses

A heat wave during flood season? They’re connected

We should be leading on climate mitigation.’

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As a global heat wave caused historic temperatures across Alberta this week, you may have been thinking about water: drinking it, swimming in it, or hoping for cooling rain.

What you may not have been imagining is the 2013 Calgary flood that killed five people and caused $5 billion in damage. The anniversary passed a few weeks ago.

The connection between them, of course, is climate change, which makes extreme events like floods, droughts and heat waves more frequent.

Through its words and actions, Alberta's United Conservative Party government has indicated it has no intention of reining in the province's production of fossil fuels, the primary culprit of global warming.

“It’s sheer stupidity to continue to develop fossil fuels,” said James Byrne, professor of geography at the University of Lethbridge. “We’re the richest people in the world, we should be leading on climate mitigation—that’s what’s going to provide us the best hedges against dramatic water problems in the future.”

But eight years after the flood, the province is still studying options for major flood mitigation infrastructure on the Bow River to protect Calgary.

Is Alberta taking the right approach on the issue of flood protection—and are we focusing on the right problem?

A wake-up call

When a storm system became stuck over the foothills of the Rocky Mountains on June 19, 2013, dumping tremendous amounts of rain that caused river levels to rapidly surge, officials were caught off guard. Some residents had to literally flee the rising water; zoo workers evacuated 158 animals in just 10 hours.

The 2013 flood was a wake-up call from nature, and governments vowed to heed it.

Of course, the seasonal flooding of prairie rivers generally, and the Bow specifically, was not new information. The Blackfoot certainly knew about it, as did the early settlers who rebuilt their homes on hills after the devastating Calgary floods of 1879 and 1897.

But the 11 hydroelectric dams built upstream of Calgary between 1911 and 1954 protected the city from any significant flooding for decades. Meanwhile, a steady influx of newcomers arrived with no knowledge of this environment, leading to extensive development of the river valley and floodplain. The 2013 flood was a wake-up call from nature, and governments vowed to heed it.

Planning for the next one

For the last eight years in southern Alberta, we have studied and debated and built new protective infrastructure, each year hoping that we’d be a little safer.

A fair bit has been done, including strategic berms and barriers in Calgary, increased capacity at the Glenmore reservoir, and an agreement between the province and TransAlta to keep water levels low at Ghost Reservoir, about 40 km west of Calgary, during flood season. The Springbank SR-1 dry reservoir project received approval from the Natural Resources Conservation Board last week.

But the big missing piece from this plan is a major mitigation infrastructure project upstream from Calgary, like a new reservoir, that would protect the city from a major flood such as the one in 2013.

The Bow River Working Group (BRWG)—an assortment of representatives and experts from First Nations, municipalities, private companies, nongovernmental organizations and the province—narrowed down the various options in a 2017 report that gives two sets of recommendations.

The choice is between a maximum flow rate on the Bow River in Calgary of either 1,200 or 800 cubic metres per second (cms). The target maximum will determine the combination of mitigation measures needed to achieve it. (As a reference, the river peaked at 1,750 cms during the 2013 flood.)

All of the plans to achieve those targets require at least one of three major infrastructure projects to be implemented: a new reservoir in Glenbow Provincial Park; a new reservoir upstream of Ghost Reservoir; and expanding Ghost Reservoir.

These three projects are big—between four and eight times the size of the Glenmore Reservoir—and expensive, ranging from $100 to $500 million. They are also fraught. Expanding Ghost Reservoir involves dismantling the current dam, while the other two options require land negotiations with the Stoney Nakoda Nation. The Glenbow option would flood part of its namesake provincial park.

The BRWG recommended conceptual assessments of the three options in its 2017 report. The province commissioned Wood Environment & Infrastructure Solutions in 2018, and their report came back in the spring of 2020.

The UCP have arranged public engagement sessions and commissioned a feasibility study of the three options. The results of the study are expected in 2023.

Each of these projects have construction time frames that range between 10 and 20 years—meaning that they could optimistically be ready for somewhere between the 20th and 30th anniversary of the 2013 flood.

In response to a question about whether a fast-tracked process was considered, Jason Penner, a spokesman for Alberta Environment and Parks, did not directly answer but highlighted the “complex and major undertaking” of any such project as well as the importance of studying all relevant factors.

As for climate change: “We are currently exploring how to account for climate change impacts as we assess these three options,” Penner wrote in an email, noting that the potential for more extreme weather events “highlights the importance of this project.”

A 100-year flood doesn’t mean we have a century until it happens again; it means there is a 1% chance of such a flood in any given year.

The process may be slow, but the caution is understandable from both an engineering and political standpoint according to Tricia Stadnyk, an engineer and professor at the University of Calgary.

“These are megaprojects,” she said. “They cost millions or billions, yet at the end of their lifespan they save billions, and that’s been shown time and again by the Red River floodway,” a 47-km channel that diverts floodwaters of the Red River around Winnipeg.

And yet political buy-in is critical, which can be a challenge: “These lifespans are longer than the average political career,” Stadnyk noted.

Also long-lived is the discussion of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, which has been in the public discussion going back to Peter Lougheed. Recent events like this historic heatwave should leave no doubt that we are now experiencing the effects of the climate crisis.

The 2013 disaster was categorized as a 100-year flood, but that doesn’t mean we have a century until it happens again; it means there is a 1% chance of such a flood in any given year.

According to Shannon Stunden Bower, an environmental historian at the University of Alberta, climate change has now moved us beyond reliable predictions for these rivers.

Our prediction models for the Saskatchewan river basin, which includes most Alberta rivers from the North Saskatchewan to Montana, are based on data from the late 19th century onwards.

“What that period led us to understand as a normal range of variability is not going to hold going forward,” Stunden Bower said. “The envelope of predictability for this river basin is no longer valid.”

'Living within nature'

Byrne, Stadnyk and Stunden Bower all agreed that addressing climate change itself, particularly by moving to end production and combustion of fossil fuels, must be the priority.

“Looking at climate change as a whole, but particularly flood and drought mitigation, we need to do absolutely everything we can from a natural perspective,” Stadnyk said. “That said, where we live, we’re seeing climate change on the order of two to four times worse than the global average. It’s not going to be enough to do those natural things because of where we’ve built.”

In other words, according to Stadnyk, we need some kind of major flood mitigation infrastructure like the options being considered by the province.

Byrne has a different view.

“I’m not a big fan of structural projects anymore,” he said. “You put something somewhere and nature adjusts somewhere else. We’re way better off living within nature, so to speak, and adjusting to it.”

Instead of megaprojects upstream, Byrne imagined retro-fitting buildings and infrastructure in Calgary’s flood-prone areas so that it could withstand inundation—just hose it off and carry on, essentially.

You put something somewhere and nature adjusts somewhere else. We’re way better off living within nature, so to speak, and adjusting to it.

James Byrne,

Professor of geography, University of Lethbridge

Some new developments take this approach, such as St. Patrick’s Island, which features simple concrete and steel infrastructure designed to be flooded.

“Look at any downtown buildings that are at risk of flood,” Byrne said. “For the most part, they’re not at risk of being washed away. They’re not at risk of being structurally damaged.”

“Get the control works, get the meaningful materials, get the HVAC out of the damn basement and put them up on the 10th floor,” he added. “Devote the main level of any commercial building that could be flooded to some kind of new purpose: winter parks, winter greenhouses.”

It’s not a perfect plan—those buildings also have parking garages and basements, and Byrne concedes dealing with homes in flood zones is more challenging—but Stunden Bower supports the mindset it reflects.

“In some ways, that brings the disruption home to the community that is to be benefitted,” she said. “It may seem like a radical disruption… but that’s actually a really minimal change compared to the experience of a First Nation community devastated by the construction of a... reservoir, or rural communities who will be disrupted by the shifts in water patterns [from] infrastructure.”

Stadnyk also endorses an adaptive approach, but is less keen on the idea that it could be a replacement for structural flood management; she says both are needed.

In the interest of both public safety and the environment, she says, “why not combine, as we always have, technology and our natural ways of approaching systems—do what we can from a natural perspective, but also apply sustainable engineering principles to improve the way water is managed.”

Whatever approach we pursue, Stunden Bower says, we shouldn’t reject an idea on the grounds that it would be too disruptive to ourselves or our communities. Our focus on flood protection is understandable, but what we are ultimately combating is the thing that makes extreme events like floods, droughts and heat waves more likely: anthropogenic climate change.

If we fail to make radical changes now—such as kicking our fossil fuel addiction, and reimagining how we live, work, move, and eat—we will be forced by nature to make them in the future, and floodable office towers won’t be such a wild idea then.

“The disruptions and transformation that we need to brace for and undertake,” Stunden Bower said, “will make that seem like small potatoes.”

Taylor Lambert is The Sprawl’s provincial affairs reporter, and the author of Rising: Stories of the 2013 Alberta Flood. Follow him on Twitter @ts_lambert

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

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We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but we need your help! We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work by pitching in a few dollars a month. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!