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Alberta is better prepared for future flooding, officials say

Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Robin Campbell, left, Alberta Premier Dave Hancock, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Associate Minister of Public Safety and for Recovery & Reconstruction discuss the province’s flood recovery and mitigation efforts during a news conference in Calgary on Tuesday.

Larry MacDougal/The Globe and Mail

With many southern Albertans keeping a wary eye on the skies for heavy June rains, politicians are seeking to assure the public they're ready for the next flood waters – whenever they come.

As the anniversary of the floods that hit High River, Calgary and other southern Alberta towns and First Nations approaches this month, residents are looking for confirmation that things won't get as bad as last year when a combination of a heavy snow pack in the Rocky Mountains and a quick and heavy rain displaced 100,000 people, and flooded thousands of homes and businesses. The insurance industry has dubbed it Canada's costliest natural disaster.

Standing on a hill above the Bow River that had swollen to eight times its normal flow rate by June 21 last year, Alberta Premier Dave Hancock and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi talked about the progress that has been made to prevent the next one, even if it's not this year.

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"We do believe there is very little risk of another event – certainly not another event anything approaching the scope or scale of what we saw last year," Mr. Nenshi said.

"But it's important that we're prepared."

While longer-term rain forecasts are unreliable, a heavy snow-pack accumulation that sat earlier this year has already lessened, according to Alberta's environment department. The province also said it is now more prepared than in 2013. Upstream reservoir water levels have been lowered, tens of thousands of tonnes of rock have been dumped to protect river banks, and berms high enough to withstand a "one-in-one-hundred-year" event have been built.

Media were offered a tour Tuesday of the work done in Calgary under the province's $200-million erosion-control program. At sites on the Bow – the city's largest river – small rock peninsulas have been constructed to jut out into the water to protect the fragile banks of soil and vegetation that were reshaped by the June, 2013, floods.

Feasibility studies for dry-dams, tunnels and other flood-mitigation projects are also moving at a fair clip. Mr. Nenshi said the city will release the results later this week of its review of a proposed five-kilometre tunnel to be used to divert roughly 500 cubic metres per second of water away from Calgary's inner-city neighbourhoods and downtown in the event of another flood.

The province has been criticized for some lags in getting assistance to home and business owners through its disaster-recovery programs. Another program to pay approximately 250 homeowners living in southern Alberta's worst flood zones to move off their land has resulted in only 77 home sales agreements, so far.

However, the flood-mitigation projects are on track. Mr. Nenshi said the two levels of government are "working together the way they're supposed to work together." While Mr. Hancock and the mayor are sure to face more pressure to speed mitigation projects as they meet with a group representing wealthy flood-affected Calgary neighbourhoods later this week, the government maintains environmental assessments on the massive infrastructure projects must be completed first.

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"For us to try and cut corners, and then end up in Federal Court, we're not going to serve anybody," Alberta Environment Minister Robin Campbell said.

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