It must be jolting for Albertans just starting to rebuild their flood-ravaged homes to hear the province warn they could be on their own, next time high waters rush in. But the broad measures the Alberta government laid out on the weekend for flood recovery and mitigation are sensible, and clearly overdue.
The government’s plan is short on details but, most contentiously, it offers incentives to a small fraction of residents whose homes are in floodways – the areas most likely to be inundated – to move elsewhere. This time, damaged floodway properties are eligible for disaster-recovery dollars to pay for basic rebuilding not covered by private insurers. But if owners choose to stay put, they will not receive public compensation next time.
As Premier Alison Redford acknowledged, “That’s going to be hard for people to hear,” when beloved homes sit on flood-prone but coveted riverside lands. But as she also rightly noted, it makes little sense to leave taxpayers on the hook for indefinite future damage that could be avoided, and no one will be forced out.
Other measures have the ring of common sense: a ban on new buildings in floodways, extra money for upgrades to protect less at-risk homes and businesses, and flags placed on land registries for floodway properties, in order to alert future buyers. The province should have been quicker to embrace these ideas, which were recommended in a 2005 report that, until recently, was unhelpfully shelved.
The province also expects to update its flood maps in light of this latest disaster, but should do so with restraint, as experts don’t always agree where to draw the line between a floodway and a less risky flood fringe.
Many people hit hard by the floods, including wealthy homeowners along the banks of the Elbow River, are already hunting for houses elsewhere, driving a flurry of real-estate bidding and pushing up prices across Calgary, which lends urgency to the government’s pledge to consider floodway relocations on a “case-by-case basis.”
What will become of floodway areas? Home prices will fall, and some neighbourhoods could wind up drained of residents, with new development prohibited – in that case, investing in welcoming public spaces would be wise.
Could the government truly afford to compensate Albertans in floodways – with cash or land swaps – at fair value? Heeding the province’s nudge shouldn’t mean taking a drastic haircut on one’s hard-earned assets.
It is encouraging that Alberta’s government is moving decisively to brace for future floods – even the Opposition Leader, Danielle Smith, agrees with the plan’s broad strokes. There is a need to curb the province’s future liabilities, but with fairness front-of-mind where people’s homes are at stake.