Anna Mehler Paperny – Global News
Strategies to prevent another devastating Albertan deluge sat on the provincial government’s desk for more than half-a-dozen years.
And the now-retired MLA behind that report got more attention for it this week than he ever had.
George Groeneveld headed a flood mitigation committee after record-breaking rainfall and river levels soaked the Calgary region in 2005. They were tasked with figuring out how to lessen the risk of a recurrence and spent a year coming up with 18 recommendations whose execution would cost about $306-million in all.
“Of course I’ve always been disappointed” with the report’s shelving, Groeneveld said in an interview from his High River home, where he’s been watching the Bow River roar up over its banks.
“People have very short memories with floods: Go through one good year and they start to relax again.”
Most of those recommendations, it appears, were never acted on. The report itself wasn’t made public until last year. Alberta’s municipal affairs minister said Monday the province has “made progress” on all the report’s recommendations, noting that they’re “a continuous work in progress.”
And Groeneveld himself gives the province credit for going partway on at least a few. He also credits Premier Alison Redford with the report’s release last year.
But that apparent lack of urgency caused consternation this week as mammoth floods wreaked havoc on communities across southern Alberta, causing multi-million-dollar damage that many argue could’ve been mitigated.
In depth: Alberta flooding
Suggestions not taken include the most basic directives: Get better data on what areas are at risk, and stop selling crown land in areas prone to flooding.
Developing floodplains, the report argued, is not only risky for whoever ends up living there; it can also eat away at badly needed buffers between swollen rivers and the rest of the city.
“Selling flood-exposed crown lands abdicates the responsibility to keeping Albertans safe to private landowners,” the report reads.
“Selling lands in flood risk areas is the opposite of flood mitigation. The province loses its say in the use of these lands and any protective measures would need to be taken through cumbersome mechanisms such as legislation or regulations.”
In a booming province, that didn’t happen. Calgary’s 49-acre East Village project, for example, was built on land supposedly raised above the flood plain. Much of it was under water this week.
“Can you imagine how much development has happened on the flood plains since 2006?” Groeneveld asked.
The report also recommends halting disaster recovery payments for any “inappropriate” new developments in flood-prone areas.
It suggests updating flood risk maps and collecting better information on what areas might be prone to flooding. At the time, 36 communities lacked flood risk studies.
But according to the provincial government’s website, flood hazard maps for much of the province haven’t been updated for years.
“In our initial analysis, pretty much all of the recommendations had some work done, but when you read the report though, very few of the recommendations have a completion date or a completion target,” Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths told reporters Monday.
“It’s a continuous work in progress to do flood mapping and to do mitigation, so we’ve made progress on all of the recommendations in the last year, since we released the report.”
Alberta Environment spokeswoman Renee Hackney said in an email Friday that the ministry “works closely with municipalities in the time leading up to flooding, providing as much information and notice as possible to allow them to make the decisions that best suit their communities. Our Flood Hazard Mapping program assesses flood risk and the nature of a flood plain. We share this information with municipalities to help them develop their flood preparedness plans and future development.”
A spokesperson from Environment Minister Diana McQueen’s office said she’ll give a technical briefing on the report in Calgary on Tuesday.
When the report was released last summer, Griffiths said he didn’t know why it hadn’t been made public before.
The issue has come up repeatedly in the legislature, usually around flood season. Asked about its status in June, 2008, then-Municipal Affairs Minister Ray Danyluk said “The issue of flood mitigation is very complex. … We
need to ensure that we have the right balance of the recommendations that are coming from that report, and we will bring those responses to this House very quickly.”
Last May, Wildrose MLA Pat Stier lamented that Groeneveld’s report had been “mothballed … as Alberta communities continued to be left in the dark.”
Stier quoted former Premier Ed Stelmach’s statement to the Okotoks Western Wheel in 2011:
“There were a number of good recommendations in the report that we have to implement, and if we don’t, we will see this recurring in the province.”
It came up again in March of this year, when Wildrose leader Danielle Smith asked when the government would “provide a detailed, comprehensive priority list of flood mitigation plans.”
Griffiths responded at the time that the government had been “working very hard with the federal government. They wind up covering a significant portion. … So we’re going to continue to work with our provincial partners and the federal government to work on the mitigation of flooding.”
John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, has spent the past several days hosting a dozen displaced souls in his Canmore home. He’s just now starting to dry out.
Pomeroy can understand government reluctance to take action: It’s politically touchy to designate prime waterfront land off-limits, or to tell homeowners they need to pack up and move because their property’s now a flood zone.
But ”if we stay down there, we’ll see more floods …. larger floods than these.”
The 2005 inundation “was such a terrible disaster … you would have thought that was the sort of warning shot that would have us get our act together.”
Groeneveld doesn’t think his report could have completely prevented this year’s devastating inundation.
“To watch that river come up as fast as it did, in that short time, and then, within a day, watch that river wipe out the big cottonwood trees that have probably been there 100, 200 years, wipe them out like matchsticks…
“Flood report be damned, we couldn’t have stopped that.”
But he’s optimistic those picking up the pieces after this latest flood will have longer memories this time around.
“I’m hoping they’ll get back on track, perhaps dust this thing off a little, bring it up to date.”