Five Years After the Flood

Five years ago, floods closed downtown Calgary, caused more than 100,000 Albertans to be evacuated from their homes and created more than $1.7 billion in insurable damages throughout the region. Since then, how much have we repaired and are we ready for next time?

Illustration by Glenn Harvey

Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi’s most endearing memory of the 2013 flood is of a sign nailed to a tree outside a house on Bow Crescent in the community of Bowness that read: “We lost some stuff, but we gained a community.” He believes that positive change continued to grow long after the last of the city’s flooded basements were cleared by community volunteers. “In terms of community we’ve seen a real wave of civic engagement, even through tough economic times,” he says.

If a 2013-level event occurred again this summer, Nenshi says the community-based mitigation already in place would help some riverfront neighbourhoods, but he notes there is still a lot to be done to protect the city from flooding. “We are not yet at the point where we can breathe freely thinking that we’ll be totally fine,” he says. “We’ve got a very bright future, and we can be optimistic about it, and over the course of the next few years we can have more confidence in our safety in the next flood.”

Christine Molohon, a full-time therapist at the Calgary Counselling Centre, worked directly with many flood-affected clients at the High River Counselling Centre between September 2013 and 2016. She says they rarely came in complaining about the flood itself. “People would say, ‘I’m dealing with anxiety, I’m dealing with depression, I’m having marriage troubles,’ but woven within that story would often be how the flood has impacted what’s going on,” says Molohon. Going through a natural disaster depletes people’s resources and ability to cope. For those who were already dealing with issues beforehand, the flood acted as a multiplier, aggravating financial and interpersonal issues. Many of these issues can persist for months, or even years.

For some, just the anniversary of the flood can cause anxiety. “[It] happens every year – we get more rain, the snow melts and they worry the flood may happen again,” says Molohon. “You can see higher stress levels and that is often when people are talking more directly about their fears of flooding and of things happening again.”

Michelle Pink and James Ford, the married owners of Think Pink real estate investment company, are familiar with this recurring unease. In 2013, the basement of Pink and Ford’s Inglewood duplex suffered groundwater flooding and sewer backup, setting them back $20,000 and costing them countless hours spent on repairs and maintenance. After the flood, the insurance premiums on all of their properties in Inglewood and neighbouring Ramsay increased by 30 per cent. While they have made their peace with their losses, Pink and Ford still deal with the annual anxiety about potential flooding.

“The worry, that’s the biggest thing. When that water starts going up, you immediately think of what could be lost,” says Ford. Pink agrees, saying that the family spends nearly every day by the river in the summer, but can’t help but keep one eye on the water level. “It’s for sure disturbing. We love the river, we utilize the river, but we definitely respect the river,” she says.

While Think Pink owns a number of properties in Inglewood, the duplex where Pink and Ford lived was the only one that flooded. Pink says that in spite of the recession, real estate values in Inglewood have risen, and she sees this reflected in the rent she can command for the properties Think Pink owns and manages. Ford also says that they haven’t had a single renter ask about flooding since 2013. “There may be a few people out there that don’t want to [live here] because of the flood, but we don’t meet them,” he says. “If they don’t, there’s someone else who doesn’t care.”

Though the couple are happy with some of the City’s mitigation efforts, they still have concerns. Among the completed projects, one in particular – a wall meant to deflect floodwaters from the Calgary Zoo – worries them, as they fear it will simply redirect more water to their home on the opposite bank. They also believe too little upstream mitigation has been done since 2013, and what measures are currently in the works aren’t happening fast enough.

“I don’t feel like we have done enough on the outside of the city,” Pink says. “It feels like no level of government wants to step on the toes of the other levels, or make that decision because they don’t want that responsibility. In High River, they still have houses that are just coming down now. How is that happening five years later? Because nobody wants to make those decisions. They’re huge, financially impactful decisions, so I appreciate that, but I don’t think we can keep on having catastrophic events and expect the rah-rah spirit to continue to be there.”

Though it has been slow moving, progress has been made. In June of 2014, the Expert Management Panel on River Flood Mitigation, a group tasked with steering the City’s flood mitigation efforts, delivered its report to City Council. The 62-page document, the result of the panel’s consultation with both the public and scientific and engineering experts, put forth 27 recommendations across six action areas. Of those recommendations, 15 had been completed at the time of this writing, and the remaining 12 were underway.

There are five principal reasons for the longer timelines when it comes to moving forward with projects, according to Frank Frigo, leader of watershed analysis with water resources for the City of Calgary. First, the scale of the projects mean they have inherently longer timelines. Then there is the search for synergy – essentially where governments try to combine the efforts of two or more departments or levels of government on projects. Another consideration is the City of Calgary’s capacity to deliver, which means examining whether the municipal government has enough people with the right expertise on hand locally to do the job correctly. There are also holistic objectives for these types of flood mitigations – in other words the point is to prevent flooding in all areas of the province, not just Calgary, so the projects have to ensure they don’t cause more problems elsewhere.

The final component is cost. The City collects money from things like drainage and wastewater fees on citizens’ utility bills in order to pay for projects and, just like the province’s funding, this money only comes in so many dollars at a time. “A big part of it has been financial,” says Frigo. “We only have x million dollars per year.”

Despite all of these factors, Frigo says the city has reduced the risk of flood damage by about 30 per cent since 2013, which translates to a $52 million a year benefit. This figure is based on the reduction of Calgary’s total annual risk exposure, which was estimated at $170 million by the province in a 2017 flood mitigations measures assessment report.

That still leaves the majority of the risk on the table though. Mitigating flood risk is complicated and slowed by the multitude of components required and the number of stakeholders involved. “The solution to flooding seems to be a menu that creates the meal, it’s not one dish,” says Frigo. “All the analysis we’ve done indicates that we need to continue to work closely with the province, federal government and all the other water stakeholders, and that’s really what we’ve been trying to do.”

Communication, in all its forms, has been a central concern for Frigo and his team. In preparation for a 2017 flood update report to City Council, the watershed analysis department held pop-up events and workshops and conducted telephone surveys asking Calgarians how they were impacted by the 2013 floods. They found that many citizens assumed the flood was a freak event, when in fact it was the relative lack of floods between 1932 and 2013 that was anomalous, Frigo says.

“Many Calgarians misconceive that the Bow and Elbow are not rivers that flood, or that the upstream storage and reservoirs are enough to take care of that. Absolutely not,” says Frigo. “The Bow and the Elbow are very flashy systems. These systems tend toward the two extremes – they’re very prone to both drought and flood. So it’s been an important part of our program to ensure that this sort of information is being conveyed to Calgarians, that there is an understanding of risk.”

According to Frigo, there has been plenty of progress worth talking about. The most visible progress is infrastructure being built both within the city and upstream. By the end of the year, 12 of 26 infrastructure projects, everything from flood barriers on Heritage Drive S.E. to a more flood-resistant bridge on 12th Street S.E. near the zoo, will be in place. But the largest, the ones the City sees as key, are the two occurring upstream – and they aren’t near being finished.

On the Elbow, improvements to the Glenmore dam, estimated at $82 million have started and are expected to be finished by early 2020. The work includes new gates and an additional 2.5 metres of storage that will roughly double the reservoir’s capacity during a flood.

Also on the Elbow, the City hopes to see the Springbank Off-Stream Reservoir, a dry dam 15 km west of Calgary, that would store water temporarily during floods. The $432 million project is currently in an environmental assessment phase, and has support from the province, but has seen objections from landowners and First Nations groups as well as multiple levels and revisions of its environmental review. One group opposed to the project, Don’t Damn Springbank, would rather see a dam at McLean Creek, and says it would be less expensive, protect more communities and require the same construction time. However, these are all points that Calgary’s mayor disagrees with. “There have been a number of studies that have shown that Springbank is the best option, that McLean Creek, for example, is not that buildable,” says Nenshi.

In combination, the Glenmore and Springbank dams could accommodate the water levels experienced in 2013. However, it will be years before the projects are completed – especially Springbank. “Both of those important pieces are really significant, but they’re not the kind of thing you do overnight,” says Frigo.

On February 8, 2018, provincial transportation minister and government house leader Brian Mason spoke to attendees of a Calgary Chamber of Commerce luncheon, reaffirming the province’s commitment to the Springbank Off-Stream Reservoir even in the face of setbacks.

“All three orders of the government are aligned and engaged on this file,” said Mason. “I am proud to say that we are moving on this project and moving it forward. We will be doing everything in our power to protect this province, people and economic engine from another natural disaster.”

For Ward 9 Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra, the speech was encouraging, but afterward during the Q & A period, he detected a reticence from Mason that worried him. “Basically, [Mason] was pulling a George W. Bush on the aircraft carrier with a banner saying, ‘Mission Accomplished,’ and everyone was saying, ‘Okay that’s awesome, glad to hear you think we’re going to still make the timeline, now let’s talk about the Bow River. And he’s like, ‘next question!'” Carra thought Mason was avoiding discussing upstream mitigation progress on the Bow, and worried it signalled the province had lost its appetite to pursue the necessary next steps on the river, which Carra says represents about two thirds of the flood danger faced by the city.

Since then though, Carra says the province has understood various groups’ concerns, and has reaffirmed its commitment to working on the Bow. “I think you’ll find the Calgary River Valleys committee, the Calgary River Communities Action Group and groups like that were all equally freaked out by the ‘mission accomplished’ narrative, and subsequently there has been some acknowledgement [from the province] that maybe the mission isn’t totally accomplished yet.”

In May, the Province announced it would give the City $13.5 million for Bow River mitigation projects in Inglewood, Eau Claire, Hillhurst and Sunnyside. While the City and Province have held a number of conversations since February and established broad agreement that the upstream situation on the Bow must be addressed, the cost of intervention there has yet to be finalized.

While the focus on homeowners during flood discussions is understandable, the impact of flooding on the business community is often overlooked, says Paul Battistella, the managing partner with Battistella Developments, which is a supporter of local advocacy group Flood Free Calgary (FFC). According to FFC, 23 per cent of small businesses and 60 per cent of large businesses in Calgary were affected by the 2013 floods and 5.1 million work hours were lost. The group, which includes citizens, businesses and organizations, advocates for timely flood mitigation, including the completion of the Springbank dam by 2021.

“There has not been nearly enough action moving flood mitigation on the Bow,” says Battistella. “Five years after the flood, there is still uncertainty and risk associated with the simpler of the two rivers, the Elbow. Both rivers need projects, and if we can’t get the simpler one done, what chance do we have on the harder one?”

Another citizen group concerned with Calgary’s flood readiness, the Calgary River Communities Action Group (CRCAG), is equally vocal about wanting more infrastructure sooner rather than later. Since its inception in July 2013, the group has advocated for mitigation to all levels of government. According to CRCAG co-president Tony Morris, developments like the five-year agreement between the province and Transalta to use the Ghost Reservoir for flood attenuation during the summer season, as well as to adjust levels at three Kananaskis reservoirs year-round, are helpful, especially for smaller-scale floods, but still leave the lion’s share to be tackled.

Morris points to the worrying precedent of inaction on the 18 recommendations former MLA George Groeneveld put forward to the province after the 2005 flood. None were fully implemented. “We have an opportunity to correct the inherent defect that the city has grown up around, which is being built at the confluence of two major rivers,” says Morris. “We’ve never been as close to seeing this kind of [mitigation] being undertaken before, we have an opportunity to do something unprecedented, but there’s absolutely no given these [infrastructure projects] are completed.”

Private industry, meanwhile, is taking a proactive approach. Riverfront developers like Concord Pacific are addressing future flooding concerns before they happen. Grant Murray, senior vice president, sales, for Concord Pacific, says the company had already finalized designs for its Eau Claire condo building The Concord in May of 2013. When the flood came within six inches of the property line a month later, the company spent a year redesigning The Concord to include features like low walls, berms, back-up power systems, self-repairing foundation walls and floodgates that can be raised in case of flooding. “I think if we hadn’t have done it, we would have had a lot of people basically saying, I’m not sure we’d want to buy here, because you’re near the river and it flooded,” says Murray. “[Instead], it’s totally a selling point.”

The path to recovery for individuals who have been through crisis isn’t uniform, says Christine Molohon of the Calgary Counselling Centre, but there are indicators, like looking forward with a sense of resiliency and only looking to the past to see what should be done differently.

The path to recovery for a city is much the same. With all eyes turned to what can be done, instead of what has happened, Calgary certainly meets that criteria for crisis recovery. From city councillors to community activists, there’s a sense of confidence in the future, but paradoxically also one of uncertainty about where we’re headed. We don’t have a plan, we have plans – some we’ve acted on, others are still just ink on paper. And it seems Calgary is on a pathway to resilience, but we can’t see the end of the journey just yet.


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