Spring is here, bringing hope for warmer days and longer nights. But along with the excitement of a new season comes worry about this year’s spring melt and the potential for flooding in southern Alberta over the coming months. To prepare for the worst, the province has been working to mitigate damage through flood management strategies.
It has been about 10 months since the June 2013 floods. The major rain event caused massive flooding throughout the South Saskatchewan River Basin, affecting tens of thousands of families throughout the region and resulting in the loss of four lives. Thousands of people were displaced from their homes, disrupting hundreds of businesses and causing significant damage to private and public property, land and infrastructure.
Since the June floods, the Government of Alberta, municipalities, businesses, professional associations and community groups have been working tirelessly to assess and implement different flood management options for future disasters.
Much of the work that has been undertaken can be grouped under the six recommendations for flood mitigation and management that were highlighted in Alberta WaterSMART’s whitepaper The 2013 Great Alberta Flood: Actions to Mitigate, Manage and Control Future Floods.
The white paper was born out of a discussion held with 30 water experts from Alberta and around the world at the June 27, 2013 Canadian Water Summit in Calgary. The discussion group, as well as wider groups and practitioners such as the Canadian Academy of Engineering and Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils (WPACs), participated in developing six recommendations. They collectively identified specific actions for mitigating, managing and controlling the impacts of extreme weather events resulting in floods and in the inevitable opposite condition of severe drought.
The six science-based proactive recommendations outlined in the white paper were:
1. Anticipate and plan for more extreme weather events, including both flood and drought.
2. Improve operational capacity to deal with potential extreme weather scenarios through better modelling and data management.
3. Investigate the cost/benefit balance of investing in physical infrastructure such as on and off-stream storage, diversions and natural infrastructure such as wetlands.
4. Consider flood risks in municipal planning and strengthen building codes for new developments in floodplains.
5. Evaluate options for overland flood insurance.
6. Collaboratively manage our water resources, following the examples of the Bow River Consortium and the Co-operative Stormwater Management Initiative, and ensuring WPACS across the province have proper authority and funding.
A significant amount of work has occurred since last summer. For example, Alberta’s River Forecast Centre is looking at ways to improve its forecasting ability, the Bow River Operational Model has been engaged to understand the impacts and stream flow rates generated by the 2013 flood and municipalities are looking at how they can improve their resiliency to flooding.
However, all of these actions require a paradigm shift that acknowledges the need for a holistic, watershed-based approach to flood management that considers a full suite of options and recognizes that water must be managed collaboratively. This approach was made clear by former Alberta premier Alison Redford at the Oct. 4, 2013 Flood Mitigation Symposium, where she emphasized the importance of looking at the entire watershed in flood management planning. This commitment was later formalized in the government’s Resilience and Mitigation Framework for Alberta Floods.
There is no one solution — infrastructure or otherwise — that will help protect Albertans from flooding. It is important to look at all of the options, some easier than others, that are possible to implement. This includes changing building codes, and encouraging professional associations to update their codes and standards (for example, Alberta’s Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists is looking to update its professional practice guidelines to reflect flood risk).
Another possible solution is to incorporate natural infrastructure into flood planning and improving the management of headwater areas so that natural wetlands and riparian zones continue to act as a buffer for heavy rainfall.
In addition, before making big decisions on flood mitigation solutions, it is critical that cost-benefit and risk analyses are conducted to assess investing in physical and natural infrastructure and to assess the best use of capital funds to support municipal planning and land use decisions.
To assist with these analyses, the best available risk assessment tools should be used. For example, groups such as the Engineers Canada’s Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Committee look broadly and systematically at infrastructure vulnerability to climate change from an engineering perspective.
Going forward, Alberta must continue to manage our water resources collaboratively. There are a variety of players involved in water management, including the federal, provincial and municipal governments, as well as local watershed groups, irrigation districts, hydropower companies and non-governmental organizations. Each has a valuable role to play in water management, and improved collaboration and information sharing between these groups is critical.
Larissa Sommerfeld is policy specialist at Alberta WaterSMART.