Calgary Herald Opinion: The fight for flood mitigation is starting to look like the pipeline battle
If there was a chance the Glenmore Reservoir would fail in springtime, how quickly would government react?
And if repairing it meant the province needed to acquire 20 private properties for fair market value, would we allow those property owners to convince us that keeping their land was more important than protecting human life or saving downtown Calgary, critical infrastructure and thousands of homes and businesses?
Fortunately, our reservoir is rock solid, but our city faces a threat every spring from flooding (and make no mistake, as a city built at the confluence of two mountain rivers, the waters will rise again).
But it’s been five years since the flood and it will be five more before our city is protected. We simply cannot afford to wait.
When evaluating our options for addressing preventable damage from flooding, Albertans have choices. We can follow the advice of unbiased world experts to build the most effective and least expensive infrastructure to protect downtown Calgary, or we can give in to those who either oppose for the sake of opposition, or have a direct interest in pursuing an inferior option.
Opponents of the Springbank project have a track record of using the courts and the regulatory process to attempt to delay the initiative in hopes a new government will cancel it, and they want us to ignore the evidence and dismiss the broad public benefits.
Sound familiar? Pipeline opponents in B.C. would be proud.
It’s also important to remember that in the past five years, two very different governments, the PCs and the NDP, looked at more than a dozen independent studies and decided that the Springbank Off-Stream Reservoir is the cheapest and most effective way to prevent future flood damage on the Elbow River.
The return on investment is substantial. The Springbank project will prevent three dollars of damage for every dollar spent building it, and most of the damage prevented would be in the core business district of downtown Calgary. This is basic infrastructure; the financial return to taxpayers and risk to human life makes it irresponsible not to build it.
No project is without impacts, but the public interest of the million or more Albertans who rely on downtown Calgary for their livelihoods means that 20 Springbank landowners will need to sell their land for fair market value. I wish there was an equally effective option that didn’t require buyouts, but there simply isn’t.
By comparison, the city will acquire 74 properties to build the Green Line LRT and 43 parcels of private land for the widening of 17th Avenue S.E. It is common for government to acquire private property when it’s in the public interest, and Springbank is no exception.
What about the McLean Creek option? A study done by the Dutch water experts Deltares found that it is inferior on all counts. It is more expensive, further upstream, and therefore less effective at mitigating floods, and it has a far greater environmental impact. Springbank will be dry nearly all the time and would be used only during flood conditions for no more than a month every few years.
And if the Springbank project appears controversial, McLean Creek would require the province to build a 28-storey concrete dam on the Elbow River that would permanently flood thousands of acres of provincial park in an area with significant Indigenous heritage, rare plants and threatened wildlife.
The debate over flood mitigation feels a lot like the battle to build a pipeline. There is a clear public interest and a positive return on investment to Albertans, and the objective facts prove Springbank is the best option. But much like the pipeline debate, opponents will use every tool at their disposal to stop it.
If we can’t build basic infrastructure that will save millions of taxpayer dollars and protect human life, can we build anything, anywhere ever again?