Alberta’s Flood: 30 Years in the Making

Flood Waters in Calgary
Image Credit: Wayne Stadler via Flickr

DeSmog Canada, June 25, 2013: As the people of southern Alberta begin to put their lives back together, the question has become whether this historic disaster could be the result of climate change. The answer from scientists has been a resounding maybe.

Yes, record high temperatures in the north caused the weather pattern that brought about unprecedented rainfall at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. But no single weather pattern, no matter how rare, can be attributed to climate change.

However, in the case of Calgary itself, there is another lesson to be learned—it’s time to start listening to scientists.

Andrew Nikiforuk points out that experts from the insurance industry to budget-starved government organizations have been warning of a massive flood in the Bow River and Elbow River for years. He calls this Calgary’s “Manhattan moment.”

But Canada Research chair in natural hazard research John Clague says the problem goes back much further, and it’s a story that feels eerily familiar to those who are interested in the debate over climate change.

Evidence of the likelihood of this kind of disastrous flooding has existed for more than 30 years. In 1979, the municipal government of Calgary commissioned Montreal Engineering Company (Monenco) to do a study of the flooding hazards at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers. The results were prescient.

Although Clague says that this flood is most likely worse than anything in recorded history, there were three major floods between 1875 and 1902, then again in 1932, followed by decades of relative dryness. The study predicted a major flooding event every 70 years or so.

With this in mind, Monenco presented Calgary with a number of strategies for limiting the predicted millions of dollars worth of damage (thanks to development since then, the number is more likely to be in the billions).

“At the heart of the recommendations was a floodplain management scheme in which hazardous areas would be officially delineated. New development would be prevented or discouraged in the hazardous areas, and existing structures would be required to meet certain ‘floodproofing’ standards,” University of Calgary’s G D Osborn wrote in Geologic And Hydrologic Hazards In Calgary.

The standards went into public consultation, inciting ire on the part of residents. Those who stood against the plans saw them as an economic impediment. They argued that there were holes in the science, and that because they’d never personally experienced such a disaster, it seemed unlikely.

“This report was made public and there was a huge amount of resistance to it,” Clague says. “People thought that this was intruding on their freedom. Those flood-prone surfaces were developed and now we see the consequences of that.”

What this comes down to is a problem that has become familiar in the debate over climate change: political obstinacy ending in disaster. The extraordinary damage wrought in the last week is the end of a Rube-Goldberg machine set rolling in the early 1980s.

There’s no reason to fault the current administration. The Monenco report was buried long before Naheed Nenshi came to power, its warnings consigned to a few paragraphs in a university textbook.

“But it does show you how politics can get in the way of proper planning,” says Clague.

This kind of blindness a global problem. It’s the same problem that has caused the deaths of almost 1000 in Uttarakhand in India. In December 2012, the Ministry of Forests Environment and Forests there declared the “entire watershed around the 135-km stretch between Gaumukh and Uttarakashi, along the Bhagirathi River, as an eco-sensitive zone under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.”

The declaration should have banned all construction in the area, but the government there felt this would be an impediment to economic growth.

In 2009 I came across a graveyard in the town of Soma in Fukushima Prefecture on the east coast of Japan. It was dedicated to the victims of a 1960 tsunami, caused by a massive earthquake in Chile. Concrete barriers shaped like giant jacks blocked the surf from the shore. Their weight had gifted those who lived around them a sense of freedom. That long ago disaster was all but forgotten. Not far away, they had built a nuclear reactor.

The only way to move forward now is to learn. Calgary should be the last piece of evidence Canada requires to begin paying attention to the future. Thinking ahead of the disasters.

This lesson will only become more potent as the dire predictions of climate scientists come to fruition over the next few decades. As global temperatures rise, there will be more evaporation from the warming ocean, and the warmer atmosphere will be able to hold more water. This could lead to more rain. Alberta has historically been vulnerable to extreme weather and as the decades pass, it will likely grow worse, unless we act.

Here we can find a positive role model in Japan. Since the 1920s that country has poured massive amounts of money into earthquake safe building techniques. Rather than waiting for a new disaster to rebuild, they sought innovative new ways to work around the problem. Imagine what might have happened in 2011 if most of the high-rises in Tokyo hadn’t been built to sway with the shaking of the earth during an earthquake. The death toll might have struck closer to the millions.

The lesson here is not just for Calgary. There are other cities in Canada that are exposed to the whims of our changing climate. Last year’s record landslide in Hope, BC that killed four people was a terrible sign of what is to come.

Cities that build near water are particularly vulnerable. “It’s true in Kamloops and arguably in Vancouver,” says Clague, who teaches at Simon Fraser University. “We’ve allowed a huge amount of development on the Fraser River flood plain.”

Alberta Premier Alison Redford estimates ten years for recovery in southern Alberta. She has already pledged $1 billion from the provinces cash-strapped budget.

With that money, there is an opportunity to do it better this time around, given the right amount of structural support. Clague says the solutions will be expensive, but the benefits far outweigh the costs.

We’ve all made some “bad decisions,” says Clague. “That’s kind of the way it is. We learn from our mistakes.”

Published in DeSmog Canada and Huffington Post