In the early 1990s, when Ralph Klein was a rookie Alberta environment minister, officials in the water resources division of his ministry used to talk about the “Big One.”
Just as people in San Francisco and Palm Springs and elsewhere along the San Andreas Fault talk about the Big One in the context of an earthquake, these public officials were talking about the Big One in the context of a catastrophic flood in southern Alberta. Twenty-five years ago, they didn’t know when it would come, but they knew the weather, the floodplains and the hydrogeology would eventually conspire to bring devastation.
There was flooding in 1995, but it was minor. There was significant flooding in 2005, but it was manageable. Then, four things happened in the past 10 months that, finally, led to the Big One on June 20 and 21 of this year.
First, it began snowing in southern Alberta in October and didn’t stop until April, weird because the winter before, it didn’t snow at all. In any event, the snowpack in the mountains was immense.
Second, we had a wet spring, which saturated the ground.
Third, a brief warm spell started melting the snowpack and the spring runoff began roaring down the mountains.
And then fourth, the trigger, an intense and slow-moving low-pressure system came up from the States and parked over Calgary and southern Alberta, delivering four days of torrential rain.
The intersection between already saturated ground, huge spring runoff, and steady biblical rains caused the rivers to explode.
An engineer working at Calgary’s Glenmore Dam commented that as long as they were controlling the outflows, then they were still in charge of the situation – but if the waters went over the top, then “humans are no longer in control.”
The waters went over the top.
The stories are now legendary of how Albertans came together to save and support each other, but the clean-up and recovery will take years.
How this plays out politically is anyone’s guess.
As summer draws to a close however, one thing is certain: the Era of Good Feelings is over. Hard questions are being asked about the flood, the response, the recovery and the next steps.
Hard questions are being asked about why earlier reports on how to prevent this were ignored, including questions on whether people should be allowed to live on the floodplain at all, and if so, whether tax dollars will be used to repair or rebuild in areas that are continually susceptible to flooding.
It is a municipal election year and Calgary’s mayor and councillors are being grilled about how they intend to prioritize repairs to schools, parks, bridges, pathways and other municipal infrastructure that will be required in the years ahead.
The provincial government has an entire quarter of the province to rebuild. This raises questions about how much this southern Alberta reconstruction will take dollars away from infrastructure projects in central and northern Alberta, which it must do to some degree unless the government intends to sell its soul to lenders by piling up debt.
The provincial government has also appointed the ubiquitous “blue ribbon panel” to determine what measures can be taken upstream in the Bow River basin to better control water management.
But if we learned anything in June, it was this: Water doesn’t listen, and doesn’t obey. When rainwater, river water and groundwater decide to do something, blue ribbon panels won’t help.
The federal government acknowledges that it pays a large part of the bill for natural disasters, but it’s notorious for taking years and years to cut a cheque. And so, as if on cue, the municipal, provincial and federal governments are publicly beginning the delicate dance of who pays for what, and how much?
The “water bomb” that hit Calgary and southern Alberta has forever changed the physical landscape, rerouting rivers, washing away towns and destroying provincial parks.
Call it “flood politics” if you will, but the question now is: Has it also changed the political landscape?
Rod Love is a consultant who was chief of staff to former Alberta premier Ralph Klein.