From his farmhouse overlooking the Bow River, George Groeneveld watched the water rise foot by foot over just a couple of hours, the rushing water snapping decades-old cottonwood trees like matches.
This was worse than he’d ever seen it, but he’d seen flooding before. In 2005, floodwaters swept through southern Alberta, killing three people and causing $165-million in damage. An MLA at the time, it was Mr. Groeneveld who led a provincial effort to produce a report with recommendations on what the province can do to better prepare for floods.
His 2006 report called on the province to, among other things, stop selling flood-plain land for development. But the report sat idle and was released only last year with nothing more than “minimal” flood-mitigation efforts from the province, he said.
Mr. Groeneveld doesn’t believe any reasonable preparation could have prepared Alberta for this month’s flood, but thinks his report’s recommendations remain relevant nonetheless.
“Dust that thing off, update it,” Mr. Groeneveld, a former Progressive Conservative MLA who left politics last year, said in an interview. “It’s going to take a lot of work to update it. The world’s changed since then, but I think the basics are still very much the same of what we found at that time.”
Mr. Groeneveld toured the flood-ravaged town of High River over the weekend with Premier Alison Redford, a former caucus colleague of his. He credits Ms. Redford, who became premier in late 2011, with finally releasing the report, and the two spoke about its recommendations.
Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths echoed that, saying it was the Redford government that finally released the report, and that the work is ongoing.
“In our initial analysis, pretty much all the recommendations had some work done. When you read the report, though, very few of the recommendations had a completion date or a completion target. It’s a continuous work in progress to do flood mapping and to do mitigation, but we’ve made progress in all the recommendations last year since we released the report,” Mr. Griffiths said at a news conference Monday in which the province pledged $1-billion in initial relief for flood cleanup.
Mr. Groeneveld’s report wasn’t the first flood study to sit in a drawer. Alberta prepared a draft flood mitigation strategy in 2002, but it remained a draft and was never published. Mr. Groeneveld’s committee reviewed it while preparing its report after flooding in 2005. “A substantial volume of material [from 2002] was still relevant,” Mr. Groeneveld’s report says. Alberta prepared a draft flood mitigation strategy in 2002, but it remained a draft and was never published. Mr. Groeneveld’s committee reviewed it while preparing its report after flooding in 2005. “A substantial volume of material [from 2002] was still relevant,” Mr. Groeneveld’s report says.
That report recommended Alberta stop selling Crown land in known flood risk areas, saying doing so “abdicates the responsibility to keeping Albertans safe to private landowners… selling lands in flood risk areas is the opposite of flood mitigation.”
Mr. Groeneveld says that’s still the most important recommendation.
“Stop building on the flood plains. Stop that. And to do that, the local municipalities have to have the support of the two bigger governments. They just have to,” he said, adding that the deed for any land that’s on a flood plain should make that clear.
The report also recommended creating a notification system to warn buyers of properties on flood plains – the information is available, but there’s no requirement for a landowner to provide it to a potential buyer, the 2006 report noted.
The report recommended the province complete a map of areas at risk of flooding. At the time of the report, there were 36 communities across the province that “require flood risk studies.”
Mr. Groeneveld’s farm wasn’t badly hit – it sits high above the river – but he recalls how quickly the water rose.
“Unfortunately, we could have done anything in High River [to prepare]. We wouldn’t have stopped this one,” he said, later adding: “I would call that a flash flood. How can a river that size rise that quickly? It’s just astonishing and mind-boggling.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he isn’t familiar with Mr. Groeneveld’s report but an “enormous” amount of quiet work by municipal staff has been done in recent years to shore up flood protection measures. He said a new berm in the Inglewood area on the Bow River helped save the neighbourhood.
“If we had the protections in place that we had only in 2005 today, the damage would have been much worse,” Mr. Nenshi said. “We have been working hard since then to do that. But that work needs to continue.”
Mr. Nenshi said people ask him why parts of the city are built on flood plains. “Because, when the city was founded, it was founded precisely because it was at the confluence of two rivers. That’s why the city is here.”
Dave Galea, a senior official with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said in a briefing Monday that the province is “currently shifting from response to recovery.” About 65,000 Calgary residents have returned to their homes, while 10,000 remain evacuated, he said. High River remains the focus of flood response, with 80 per cent of its homes without power and the wastewater treatment plant not running.
Across much of the flood-affected southern parts of the province, rain was forecast Monday but wasn’t expected to increase river levels.
“Things should start to improve as water levels recede…. The water levels, although they’re receding, are going to remain high for a number of days,” Mr. Galea said.
Premier Alison Redford was set to announce a “major step to rebuild Alberta” later on Monday, following a meeting of the provincial Treasury Board, which oversees spending.
With a report from Kelly Cryderman in Calgary