Facing the prospect of a multibillion-dollar cleanup bill, the Alberta government will consider placing new limits on development in flood-prone areas, the key recommendation of a 2006 report that was shelved for six years.
The report, released only last year, called for $306-million in changes that some say could have paid off in this month’s flood.
Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen left the door open to putting a clamp on flood-plain development when questioned about the report Tuesday. “We’ll be looking and having discussions on that.”
Stopping the sale of Crown land “in known flood risk areas” was the single most relevant safety measure the province could take, former MLA George Groeneveld says. He wrote the 2006 report after much of his riding flooded the year before. It’s the same region that washed out again this month.
But to slow or stop flood-plain development would be a monumental undertaking because, simply put, people like waterfront land. Mr. Groeneveld also recommended the province refuse disaster-relief money to “inappropriate development” – a notion opposed by cities “as it halts development in very high value areas,” his report says. Some of flood-ravaged Calgary’s most desirable enclaves are on low-lying land, where taxpayers will now cover much of the rebuilding cost.
But other experts warn little will change. “I’d say they’re basically asleep at the wheel, and they’re like political jurisdictions everywhere,” University of Calgary professor Jerry Osborn, a geoscientist who studies river movements, said of the Alberta government. Mr. Groeneveld’s report was “quite thoughtful,” he said, but “there’s no real, serious attempt to cut down on flood plain development.”
Political interest peaks after disasters and then tends to disappear, said Geoffrey Hale, a political scientist at Alberta’s University of Lethbridge. He began a yet-to-be-published study on Alberta’s disaster response after the 2005 flood. Political leaders tend “to engage only when something goes seriously wrong,” he said. He suspects the province delayed the release of Mr. Groeneveld’s report out of a liability concern. “There would have been a retrospective impact on anyone that already had property within a flood zone or a flood fringe zone,” he said.
In 1973, Calgary considered declaring flood plains as hazard zones, Prof. Osborn recalls. Landowners fired back, fearing their property values would drop. “It was amazing. And the heat was so hot, the city finally gave up the whole thing,” he said. A 1983 provincial study was similarly fruitless.
Consumers drive demand for waterfront housing, said Kevin Lee, chief executive officer of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association.
“One of the most popular choices of Canadians is to live near water,” he said, adding some towns and cities set strict rules that builders then follow. “... But of course when major events occur that are outside the norm, and way beyond the norm, stuff can happen at times.”
Mr. Groeneveld encouraged the province to look at his report again, as it faces what the Premier warns could be a 10-year rebuilding effort. “Dust that thing off, update it,” he said, later adding: “The one [recommendation] that’s totally relevant – stop building on the flood plains. Stop that.”
Since the report, Alberta officials say they’ve produced 57 flood hazard maps and 36 “high water mark” surveys, and sent extensive information to towns and cities. And now the province will be in talks with those municipalities over what to do about flood plains.
Danielle Smith, the Wildrose Leader who succeeded Mr. Groeneveld as MLA in her riding, had long pushed for the flood report’s release. “I’m not saying [this year’s] disaster could have been avoided altogether,” she said. “But [think about] how much less damage there would have been if they started implementing the results of George Groeneveld’s report when he wrote it.”
Ms. McQueen rejected that, saying this flooding was “unprecedented” and no report “could have prepared us for this event.”
Prof. Osborn said the province could easily limit further flood-plain development, while Prof. Hale said the province should focus on changes that can be introduced within 12 months.
“We cannot afford to go along on a business-as-usual basis,” he said. “It is the default option in emergency management, not just in Alberta but anywhere including the federal government, until something big enough happens to get people’s attention.”