Calgary flood mitigation up in the air as millions in provincial money on hold

Flood mitigation projects across Alberta, including some that experts say are desperately needed to protect Calgary from a repeat of 2013’s disaster, are on hold while the province reviews already-committed funds.

In 2013, floodwaters rushed into the city and nearby communities, forcing 70,000 people to flee their homes, killing five and causing billions of dollars of damage. 

After that, the province established a grant program that would see $500 million committed over 10 years to make Alberta more resilient to floods and droughts.

The NDP had committed $43.2 million in March 2019 as part of that program to support 15 flood mitigation projects across the province.

That money, and future grants, are now up in the air.

This year’s grants include:

  • $6.9 million to protect Calgary’s downtown with a permanent flood barrier along the Bow River.
  • $8 million on a stormwater system to mitigate flooding in Hillhurst-Sunnyside.
  • $7.4 million on the Horsefly Spillway project to the Oldman River, to protect multiple southern Alberta communities near the river, like Taber.

The province says no decisions have been made regarding those grants, or any grants supporting flood mitigation projects going forward.

And the government didn’t provide a timeline for the review.

“Alberta’s new government made a clear commitment during the provincial election to review all of the spending commitments made by the previous administration,” a representative for the minister of environment and parks said in an emailed statement. 

Without provincial and federal funding this project is a no go.– Merrill Harris, reeve of the M.D. of Taber

For Calgary, that possibly means $75 million in funding that might not be renewed.

“Our $15-million per year allotment is funding a number of projects that are underway … they’re all in various levels of design or construction,” said Frank Frigo, the leader of watershed analysis for the city. 

Frigo said flood investment is a priority, adding that the city is confident the province will see the value in the projects and allow them to proceed.

“So there’s great confidence the type of investments that we’re talking about are important, high-valued, high-return investments that improve a number of outcomes. Most importantly, human life safety and property protection.”

Floodwaters cover a rural property in the Municipal District of Taber in April 2018. (Submitted by Mark Valgardson)

But other communities aren’t in the same position of certainty.

Reeve Merrill Harris of the M.D. of Taber says the review puts the Horsefly Spillway — which could protect communities from Lethbridge to Medicine Hat — in jeopardy.

“Without provincial and federal funding this project is a no go. It just won’t happen, because the cost is too high for the municipalities and the towns and villages along this project to fund on our own,” Harris said. “It’s just more than we can bear ourselves.”

He said this project was identified as the highest priority in the region because it would most benefit all the people that live downstream from the St. Mary River Irrigation District — the country’s largest irrigation district.

Officials in the region are set to meet Thursday to discuss next steps.

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