All too often, flood mitigation proves short of common sense

Just as the floods receded in southern Alberta, and right on schedule, various government politicians earnestly declared

Just as the floods receded in southern Alberta, and right on schedule, various government politicians earnestly declared that steps will be taken to avoid the problem in the future.

To show their determination to take action — myriad committees, task forces, expert panels, senior officials and other suspects have been ordered into motion to come up with a plan to avert a major flood disaster in the future.

If all of that sounds familiar, welcome to the cynics’ club. Past flooding calamities going back to the 1890s have at one time or another seen studies and reports made to deal with the problem once and for all.

To be fair, flood-mitigation efforts have taken place over that time and were no doubt instrumental in avoiding many potential disasters. But like generals who are always planning to fight the last war again, those mitigation efforts tended to deal with the most recent flood — not the next big one.

Human nature tends to govern that approach. Planners figure that there won’t be a bigger flood the next time. When the inevitable happens, the excuse is that they can’t plan for that one-in-thousand flood scenario.

Well, actually you can — but you have to have the courage to not just take the action, but commit the financial resources to carry it out. There are plenty of reports gathering dust about what should have been done, but the political will and vision was always lacking.

It always seems that there is much enthusiasm immediately after a flood to do something — but alas — if in subsequent years there is no flood problem, then the issue seems to fade away.

High River continues to be the classic case of flood-planning procrastination that governments continued to support against all common sense, and not the slightest concern to mitigate the real problem. Even today, discussions are about rebuilding the town — for what — to have more buildings ready for the next flood? But I digress.

Flood mitigation is not all that difficult. It’s been done in a major way in many parts of the world. All of these panels, experts, etc., don’t have to re-invent the wheel. For instance the Netherlands has had to deal with flooding for the past 2,000 years. Forty per cent of the country lies under sea level and they spent 50 years on a project to push back the North Sea and divert the Rhine River. Those efforts make dealing with Bow River flooding look absolutely trivial.

Now common sense might indicate that perhaps we should import Dutch water control experts to resolve our flood problems once and for all. But that’s not likely to happen. In Canada and the U.S., we prefer to reinvent the wheel and learn the hard way. I cite the BSE outbreak as a classic example — Europe went through that nightmare 10 years before Alberta. Did we learn from them — no, our officials actually went out of their way to repeat their mistakes. But I digress — again.

If our self-righteous experts are too proud to accept Dutch expertise, then they could actually find it here in Alberta. In southern Alberta, we have a hundred-years’ experience in diverting rivers, building canals and reservoirs for the irrigation industry. We actually have world-class expertise.

That expertise already sees major diversions on the Bow and Oldman rivers into canals. Is it really such a leap to use that experience to create emergency diversions structures to avert future major floods. For instance, much of irrigation infrastructure renovation is now seeing large pipelines replacing canals. So why couldn’t a couple of major pipelines not be built to divert overflow from the Bow River around Calgary.

Alberta manages to transport millions of barrels a day of oil out of the province every day. Surely we have the expertise to build a relatively short pipeline to divert a major overflow of water, or is that too much common sense?

It’s not like it’s a new concept — the city of Winnipeg in the 1950s built a major floodway around that city and they haven’t seen a flood since.

Surely, pipeline technology has advanced enough that Calgary could achieve the same end. But there’s that perennial problem — short memories. As the flood-free years pass — spending say $500 million on a short pipeline would be deemed unnecessary and a waste of money. So don’t hold your breath waiting for any immediate common-sense approaches to flood mitigation.

— Ahead of the Heard

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