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The federal government has determined that the Springbank Off-Stream Reservoir, a proposed flood-control structure intended to protect Calgary, would not likely cause significant environmental harm.

The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada said the project “isn’t likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.” It proposed mitigation measures that will become binding if the project receives final federal approval.

Alberta Transportation plans to build the reservoir in Rocky View County, about 15 kilometres west of Calgary, in an area long used for ranching and agriculture. The reservoir would usually be empty, and would receive water from the Elbow River through a diversion channel during floods, reducing flows into Calgary’s Glenmore Reservoir. Stored water would be gradually released back into the river after the danger subsides. It would be among the largest flood-mitigation structures in Canada.

It has faced considerable opposition from nearby landowners, First Nations and communities, some of whom said they would prefer a dam further upstream. Karin Hunter, president of the Springbank Community Association, said the project would disturb an area larger than Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

“The whole region is sort of a boundary between forest and native grassland and prairies, along with a good chunk of wetlands,” she said. “So it’s a really, really big footprint. … You can’t undo it once it’s done.”

The federal agency’s assessment identified a wide range of environmental consequences. For example, sediment accumulated in the reservoir could become airborne dust in windy conditions. The agency concluded such effects would be localized and reversible, and proposed that Alberta Transportation finalize a plan to manage air quality before construction, with advice from the federal health and environment departments.

The agency concluded Springbank might also affect groundwater, but any changes would be short-term and of low magnitude; local wells would remain usable. It recommended that Alberta Transportation add more wells to its groundwater-monitoring program.

The project would also destroy wildlife habitat. Alberta Transportation has said it will install “wildlife-friendly” fences that animals can get over or underneath, and that animals will be able to pass freely through the area when the reservoir is empty. The agency agreed with Alberta Transportation’s proposed mitigation measures and did not impose new ones.

McKenzie Kibler, press secretary for Minister of Transportation Ric McIver, said provincial officials are still reviewing the draft conditions.

“Alberta Transportation will continue to work diligently to ensure this project crosses the regulatory finish line and can begin construction as soon as possible,” he wrote in a statement.

Calgary is at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers, and is vulnerable to severe flooding. In 2013, swaths of the city were inundated in one of Canada’s costliest natural disasters.

The city regards the reservoir as crucial to becoming more resilient. The municipality has said events on the scale of the 2013 floods will become more frequent owing to climate change. A 2017 study anticipated that without the reservoir, flood damage to Calgary would average nearly $170-million a year. Of all mitigation options considered, the city said Springbank will deliver the highest benefits relative to its costs.

Failure to get approval of the reservoir “will set back flood mitigation efforts on the Elbow River potentially for decades,” the city said in November.

The project was scheduled to be operational this spring, but has been delayed. The federal assessment (which is proceeding under the previous, now-repealed environmental assessment legislation) began in 2015. In 2017, the agency’s predecessor, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, said Alberta’s initial assessment didn’t meet its guidelines, and demanded more details.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi blasted Ottawa’s approach to environmental assessments. “Four premiers from three different political parties have agreed on what is needed,” he wrote in The Globe and Mail in 2019. “But we can’t get what we need built.”

The Tsuut’ina Nation, the closest Indigenous community to the project, had objected for years, but withdrew its opposition last April, after negotiating a $32-million provincial grant.

More obstacles remain. According to the province, only 25 per cent of the necessary land has been purchased. Last year, Alberta estimated the reservoir would cost $432-million, up from $297-million. Ms. Hunter said the agency’s proposed mitigation requirements would further increase costs.

“It’s going to be $700-million plus by the time it’s done,” she predicted.

The agency is seeking public comments on its draft findings, and will hold virtual information sessions later this month. The federal environment minister is expected to make the final decision. Alberta’s Natural Resources Conservation Board is reviewing the project to determine whether it’s in the public interest. Public hearings are scheduled to begin March 22.

Alberta Transportation says the reservoir would take three years to build.

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