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Flooding threatens Alberta communities hit last year

A displaced boat sits on the front lawn of a home in High River’s Wallaceville neighbourhood damaged by the massive flood in High River during a media tour of the city June 25, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Swaths of southern Alberta are once again in danger as a rain storm and snow melt in the mountains are causing rivers to swell, just days shy of the anniversary of last year's massive flooding.

Lethbridge County on Tuesday declared a state of emergency and is predicting "extremely high" water levels on the Oldman River. The levels could rival that reached during the 1995 flood, when Lethbridge's water-treatment plant was threatened, livestock drowned, and parts of the local golf course were wiped out. The City of Lethbridge has not declared a state of emergency yet.

The Highwood River is also threatening parts of High River, one of the province's hardest hit areas last year. Wallaceville, a High River community on the banks of the river, is under flood watch. Few people live there now because of last year's destruction, but some holdouts remain. Calgary appears to be safe, a provincial official said, despite rising levels in the Bow and Elbow rivers.

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The 2013 flood started June 20, and parts of the hardest hit areas are still in shambles. Homes in High River, Calgary, and on Siksika Nation reserve, for example, are boarded up, awaiting bulldozers, and even basic mitigation such as dikes and berms are not finished in flood-prone zones. Some people are still homeless. Rain combined with the snow pack is once again to blame for putting the province on edge.

"Everybody in our community is walking on pins and needles because of last year," said High River's Jamie Kinghorn. He owns a home, as well as a rental property, in Wallaceville. His son is living in the home, and the rental is boarded up. "I feel like part of my responsibility is to coach people, calm them down, and try to minimize anxiety."

His son is staying in the home despite the town's pleas to pack up. Wallaceville is slated to return to undeveloped land so water can freely flow through the flood-prone area. All but one of the trailers in the trailer park, for example, have been torn down. Lawns in the area are overgrown, windows are boarded up, buildings are teetering on their crumbled foundations.

Mr. Kinghorn, who is dissatisfied with the government's buyout offer, is unmoved by the warning.

"It is not even likely to go over the banks," he said, noting he and his wife are living in another part of town. "Yeah, we're going to get some moisture out of it. Make sure your downspouts are out and your sump pump is working."

Lethbridge County urged residents to move livestock out of the Oldman River's valley and prepare for a potential evacuation order to come Wednesday. About 20 to 25 homes are in the valley in the county, containing about 55 residents.

The Oldman River could reach 4,500 cubic metres a second around Wednesday night or Thursday morning, officials said. Last year's flooding in the area happened at around 2,100 cubic metres a second. In 1995, it reached 4,600 cubic metres a second.

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Water almost reached bridge girders in the city of Lethbridge in 1995, according to Lorne Hickey, Lethbridge County's reeve. That is about 10 to 12 metres higher than the water is now, he said.

"They had trouble protecting the water treatment plant," he said of the 1995 flood. "Livestock floated down the river."

Lethbridge, he said, is waiting to see what the storm brings before declaring a state of emergency. Further, Lethbridge residents are not allowed to build in its river valley – a policy decision that followed a flood in 1953.

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