Editorial: Flood mitigation should be simple — except for procrastination

Just as the floods receded in southern Alberta, and right on schedule, various politicians earnestly declared that steps will be taken to avoid this 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 this all sounds familiar, welcome to the cynics club. Past flooding calamities going back to the 1890s have at one time or another seen mitigation studies and reports made to deal with the problem once and for all.

To be fair, some flood mitigation efforts have taken place over that time and were no doubt instrumental in avoiding many potential disasters. Most of those efforts involved building up berms. 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, as 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-1,000 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.

In southern Alberta we have a 100-year experience in diverting rivers, building canals and reservoirs for the irrigation industry. That expertise already sees major diversions on the Bow and Oldman rivers into large canals. Is it really such a big leap to use that experience to create emergency diversion structures to avert future major floods? For instance much of the present irrigation infrastructure renovation is now using large pipelines to replace canals. So why couldn’t a couple of major pipelines not be built to divert overflow from the Bow River around Calgary or any other at-risk river in the province? Alberta manages to transport millions of barrels of oil out of the province every day, surely we have the engineering expertise to build a relatively short pipeline to divert a major overflow of water or is this too much common sense.

It’s not like it’s a new concept — the City of Winnipeg in the 1960s built a major floodway around their city and they haven’t seen a flood since. Surely pipeline technology has advanced enough that Calgary could achieve the same end. But there is that perennial problem — short memories. As the flood-free years come to pass, spending, say $500 million on a short pipeline, will surely become entangled in the usual procrastination. Unfortunately when it comes to flooding and mitigation planning — history seems to repeat itself in both cases.

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