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Alberta's Flood: 30 Years in the Making

Posted: 06/25/2013 5:37 pm

As the people of southern Alberta begin to put their lives back together, the question has become whether this historic disaster could be the result of climate change. The answer from scientists has been a resounding "maybe."

Yes, record high temperatures in the north caused the weather pattern that brought about unprecedented rainfall at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. But no single weather pattern, no matter how rare, can be attributed to climate change.

However, in the case of Calgary itself, there is another lesson to be learned -- it's time to start listening to scientists.

Andrew Nikiforuk points out that experts from the insurance industry to budget-starved government organizations have been warning of a massive flood in the Bow River and Elbow River for years. He calls this Calgary's "Manhattan moment."

But Canada Research Counsel Chair in Natural Hazard Research John Clague says the problem goes back much further, and it's a story that feels eerily familiar to those who are interested in the debate over climate change.

Evidence of the likelihood of this kind of disastrous flooding has existed for more than 30 years. In 1979, the municipal government of Calgary commissioned Montreal Engineering Company (Monenco) to do a study of the flooding hazards at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers. The results were prescient.

Although Clague says that this flood is most likely worse than anything in recorded history, there were three major floods between 1875 and 1902, then again in 1932, followed by decades of relative dryness. The study predicted a major flooding event every 70 years or so.

With this in mind, Monenco presented Calgary with a number of strategies for limiting the predicted millions of dollars worth of damage (thanks to development since then, the number is more like to be in the billions).

"At the heart of the recommendations was a floodplain management scheme in which hazardous areas would be officially delineated. New development would be prevented or discouraged in the hazardous areas, and existing structures would be required to meet certain 'floodproofing' standards," University of Calgary's G. D. Osborn wrote in Geologic And Hydrologic Hazards In Calgary.

The standards went into public consultation, inciting ire on the part of residents. Those who stood against the plans saw them as an economic impediment. They argued that there were holes in the science, and that because they'd never personally experienced such a disaster, it seemed unlikely.

"This report was made public and there was a huge amount of resistance to it," Clague says. "People thought that this was intruding on their freedom. Those flood-prone surfaces were developed and now we see the consequences of that."

What this comes down to is a problem that has become familiar in the debate over climate change: political obstinacy ending in disaster. The extraordinary damage wrought in the last week is the end of a Rube-Goldberg machine set rolling in the early 1980s.

There's no reason to fault the current administration. The Monenco report was buried long before Naheed Nenshi came to power, its warnings consigned to a few paragraphs in a university textbook.

"But it does show you how politics can get in the way of proper planning," says Clague.

This kind of blindness is a global problem. It's the same problem that has caused the deaths of almost 1,000 in Uttarakhand in India. In December 2012, the Ministry of Forests Environment and Forests declared the "entire watershed around the 135-km stretch between Gaumukh and Uttarakashi, along the Bhagirathi River, as an eco-sensitive zone under the Environment Protection Act, 1986."

The declaration should have banned all construction in the area, but the government there felt this would be an impediment to economic growth.

In 2009 I came across a graveyard in the town of Soma on the east coast of Japan, Fukushima prefecture, that was dedicated to the victims of a 1960 tsunami, caused by a massive earthquake in Chile. Concrete barriers shaped like giant jacks blocked the surf from the shore. Their weight had gifted those who lived around them a sense of freedom. That long ago disaster was all but forgotten. Not far away, they had built a nuclear reactor.

The only way to move forward now is to learn. Calgary should be the last piece of evidence Canada requires to begin paying attention to the future. Thinking ahead of the disasters.

This lesson will only become more potent as the dire predictions of climate scientists come to fruition in the next few decades. As global temperatures rise, there will be more evaporation from the warming ocean, and the warmer atmosphere will be able to hold more water. This could lead to more rain. Alberta has historically been vulnerable to extreme weather and as the decades pass, it will likely grow worse, unless we act.

Here we can find a positive roll model in Japan. Since the 1920s that country has poured massive amounts of money into earthquake safe building techniques. Rather than waiting for a new disaster to rebuild, they sought innovative new ways to work around the problem. Imagine what might have happened in 2011 if most of the high-rises in Tokyo hadn't been built to sway with the shaking of the earth during an earthquake. The death toll might have struck closer to the millions.

The lesson here is not just for Calgary. There are other cities in Canada that are exposed to the whims of our changing climate. Last year's record landslide in Hope, BC that killed four people was a terrible sign of what is to come.

Cities that build near water are particularly vulnerable. "It's true in Kamloops and arguably in Vancouver," says Clague, who teaches at Simon Fraser University. "We've allowed a huge amount of development on the Fraser River flood plain."

Alberta Premier Alison Redford estimates ten years for recovery in southern Alberta. She has already pledged $1 billion from the provinces cash-strapped budget.

With that money, there is an opportunity to do it better this time around, given the right amount of structural support. Clague says the solutions will be expensive, but the benefits far outweigh the costs.

We've all made some "bad decisions," says Clague. "That's kind of the way it is. We learn from our mistakes."

- Erika Thorkelson

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  • Homeowner Eddy Marshall becomes emotional as he surveys the damage to his basement at his residence in High River, Alberta on Monday, July 1, 2013. A second wave of homeowners and business owners were allowed to return to the flood ravaged town since the disaster struck on June 20. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jordan Verlage

  • Mike Sojer moves clothing and items from his family's clothing store as clean up work commences on downtown places of business in High River, Alberta on July 1, 2013. A second wave of homeowners and business owners were allowed to return to the flood ravaged town since the disaster struck on June 20. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jordan Verlage

  • A resident walks past a motor boat lying in the street in High River, Alberta on Monday, July 1, 2013. A second wave of homeowners and business owners were allowed to return to the flood ravaged town since the disaster struck on June 20. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jordan Verlage

  • Homeowner Eddy Marshall carries belonging from his basement at his residence in High River, Alberta on Monday, July 1, 2013. A second wave of homeowners and business owners were allowed to return to the flood ravaged town since the disaster struck on June 20.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jordan Verlage

  • Mud and building contents litter the sidewalk as clean up work commences on downtown places of business in High River, Alberta on Monday, July 1, 2013. A second wave of homeowners and business owners were allowed to return to the flood ravaged town since the disaster struck on June 20. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jordan Verlage

  • A pile of debris sits outside a Town of High River Municipal building as clean up work commences on downtown places of business in High River, Alberta on Monday, July 1, 2013. A second wave of homeowners and business owners were allowed to return to the flood ravaged town since the disaster struck on June 20. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jordan Verlage

  • A volunteer's boots are caked with mud as clean up work continues on downtown places of business in High River, Alberta on Monday, July 1, 2013. A second wave of homeowners and business owners were allowed to return to the flood ravaged town since the disaster struck on June 20. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jordan Verlage

  • Water surrounds homes in a flooded neighborhood in High River, Alberta, Canada on Saturday, June 29, 2013. The Alberta government is letting people who live in High River return to their homes in stages after being forced out by floods over a week earlier. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)

  • Water floods a neighborhood in High River, Alberta, Canada on Saturday, June 29, 2013. The Alberta government is letting people who live in High River return to their homes in stages after being forced out by floods over a week earlier. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)

  • A residents cleans up his home in High River, Alberta, Canada on Saturday, June 29, 2013. The Alberta government is letting people who live in High River return to their homes in stages after being forced out by floods over a week earlier. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)

  • Water floods a neighborhood in High River, Alberta, Canada on Saturday, June 29, 2013. The Alberta government is letting people who live in High River return to their homes in stages after being forced out by floods over a week earlier. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)

  • Waters flood a neighborhood in High River, Alberta, Canada on Saturday, June 29, 2013. The Alberta government is letting people who live in High River return to their homes in stages after being forced out by floods more than a week ago. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)

  • Heaps of damaged goods pile up on High River streets, as residents are finally allowed to return.

  • Resident Christine Doefel wipes away tears as she leaves a reception centre after getting entry permits and clean-up kits from the Red Cross in High River, Alta., Saturday, June 29, 2013. The Alberta government is letting people who live in High River return to their homes in stages after being forced out by floods more than a week ago.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

  • A Red Cross volunteer helps residents as they leaves a reception centre after getting an entry permit and a clean-up kit from the Red Cross in High River, Alta., Saturday, June 29, 2013. The Alberta government is letting people who live in High River return to their homes in stages after being forced out by floods more than a week ago.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

  • Residents Christine Doefel, left, and her daughter Brooklynn Carney, embrace as the leave a reception centre after getting entry permits and clean-up kits from the Red Cross in High River, Alta., Saturday, June 29, 2013. The Alberta government is letting people who live in High River return to their homes in stages after being forced out by floods more than a week ago.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

  • Residents leave a reception centre after getting entry permits and clean-up kits from the Red Cross in High River, Alta., Saturday, June 29, 2013. The Alberta government is letting people who live in High River return to their homes in stages after being forced out by floods more than a week ago.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

  • Residents embrace as they leave a reception centre after getting an entry permit and a clean-up kit from the Red Cross in High River, Alta., Saturday, June 29, 2013. The Alberta government is letting people who live in High River return to their homes in stages after being forced out by floods more than a week ago.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

  • A residents leaves a reception centre after getting an entry permit and a clean-up kit from the Red Cross in High River, Alta., Saturday, June 29, 2013. The Alberta government is letting people who live in High River return to their homes in stages after being forced out by floods more than a week ago.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

  • Residents leave a reception centre after get entry permits and clean-up kits from the Red Cross in High River, Alta., Saturday, June 29, 2013. The Alberta government is letting people who live in High River return to their homes in stages after being forced out by floods more than a week ago.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

  • Residents wait in line to get entry permits to the flooded town of High River, Alta., Saturday, June 29, 2013. The Alberta government is letting people who live in High River to return to their homes in stages after being forced out by floods more than a week ago. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

  • Al Moore, a 42-year-resident of High River, listens to the radio broadcast on Friday, June 28, 2013 of the new re-entry plan for evacuees northwest of High River, Alberta. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jordan Verlage

  • The Calgary flood as seen from space.

  • The Calgary flood as seen from space compared with a before-and-after photo.

  • Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, middle, and Calgary Stampeders president Gord Norrie, 2nd right, and others during pregame cerimonies honoring Alberta Flood Relief first responders and find raising efforts prior to CFL action between Calgary and BC in Calgary, Alberta on Friday, June 28, 2013. (CFL PHOTO - Larry MacDougal)

  • Calgary Stampeders Jon Cornish leaps with the ball during second half CFL action against the BC Lions in Calgary, Alberta on Friday, June 28, 2013. Cornish pledged $2,000 to Alberta flood relief immediately following the game. (CFL PHOTO - Larry MacDougal)

  • Cleanup continues on the Calgary Stampede grounds one week after major flooding in Calgary, Alberta on Thursday, June 27, 2013. The Elbow River flows by on to top and left, Saddledome is situated lower right and the chuckwagon track and rodeo grounds are top.

  • This photo provided by Transportation Safety Board shows a train with derailed tankers at the Bonny Brook bridge in Calgary, Alberta Canada on Thursday, June 27, 2013. The City of Calgary says conditions have stabilized at the site of the bridge collapse that caused six cars to derail and start sinking into the Bow River. Canadian Pacific Railway says five of the cars are carrying a petroleum product used to dilute raw oilsands bitumen. The city's acting fire chief has said crews are stringing a cable through the railcars and securing it to bulldozers on land. The industrial area near the bridge has been evacuated and booms are being deployed down river in case of any spills. There are no homes nearby, but several business are effected. (AP Photo/Transportation Safety Board via The Canadian Press)

  • Monica West carries damaged goods out of a souvenir shop as clean-up crews work at the Calgary Zoo in Calgary, Alberta, Canada on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. Heavy rains caused flooding, closed roads, and forced evacuations across Southern Alberta. Calgary Zoo staff risked their lives over the weekend to stop a hippo from escaping into the swollen Bow River. Director of animal care, conservation and research, Jake Veasey, says flood waters in the hippos' enclosure rose high enough during the floods for the dangerous herbivores to swim out. One hippo named Lobi was feeling particularly adventurous and was moving freely around the African Savannah building. Veasey had to break a window to get into the building and he swam in the muddy flood waters to find the animal. Zoo staff used cinder blocks and construction equipment to block Lobi inside the building. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)

  • A muddied research book dries as clean-up crews work at the Calgary Zoo in Calgary, Alberta, Canada on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. Heavy rains caused flooding, closed roads, and forced evacuations across Southern Alberta. Calgary Zoo staff risked their lives over the weekend to stop a hippo from escaping into the swollen Bow River. Director of animal care, conservation and research, Jake Veasey, says flood waters in the hippos' enclosure rose high enough during the floods for the dangerous herbivores to swim out. One hippo named Lobi was feeling particularly adventurous and was moving freely around the African Savannah building. Veasey had to break a window to get into the building and he swam in the muddy flood waters to find the animal. Zoo staff used cinder blocks and construction equipment to block Lobi inside the building. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)

  • A soldier walks by a pile of speedboats in High River, Alberta on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. High River was hit by a devastating flood on June 20 which caused a mass evacuation of the entire town although some residents chose to defy the order. Alberta's premier pledged $1 billion on Monday to help people recover from the floods. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jordan Verlage)

  • A road crew foreman surveys the washed-out lanes of northbound MacLeod Trail in Calgary, Alta., Monday, June 24, 2013. Heavy rains caused flooding, closed roads, and forced evacuations across Southern Alberta. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)

  • Clean-up crews work at the Calgary Zoo in Calgary, Alberta, Canada on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. Heavy rains caused flooding, closed roads, and forced evacuations across Southern Alberta. Calgary Zoo staff risked their lives over the weekend to stop a hippo from escaping into the swollen Bow River. Director of animal care, conservation and research, Jake Veasey, says flood waters in the hippos' enclosure rose high enough during the floods for the dangerous herbivores to swim out. One hippo named Lobi was feeling particularly adventurous and was moving freely around the African Savannah building. Veasey had to break a window to get into the building and he swam in the muddy flood waters to find the animal. Zoo staff used cinder blocks and construction equipment to block Lobi inside the building. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)

  • Wreckage lies along Center Street in High River, Alberta on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. High River was hit by a devastating flood on June 20 which caused a mass evacuation of the entire town although some residents chose to defy the order. Alberta's premier pledged $1 billion on Monday to help people recover from the floods. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jordan Verlage)

  • Calgary firefighters check on homes as residents and volunteers are in clean up mode in the community of Bowness as most of the homes have been pumped out with still some remaining submerged in water in Calgary, Alberta, on Monday, June 24, 2013. Alberta's premier pledged $1 billion on Monday to help people recover from floods that devastated parts of the western Canadian province. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

  • A road crew foreman surveys the washed-out lanes of northbound MacLeod Trail in Calgary, Alta., Monday, June 24, 2013. Heavy rains caused flooding, closed roads, and forced evacuations across Southern Alberta. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)

  • Thaya Gallant

    Thaya Gallant helps with the flood clean-up at a law office in Calgary, Alta., Monday, June 24, 2013. Heavy rains caused flooding, closed roads, and forced evacuations across Southern Alberta. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)

  • Calgary firefighters check on home as residents and volunteers are in clean up mode in the community of Bowness as most of the homes have been pumped out with still some remaining submerged in water in Calgary, Alberta on Monday, June 24, 2013. Alberta's premier pledged $1 billion on Monday to help people recover from floods that devastated parts of the western Canadian province. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

  • People watch as the river peaks, causing flooding in Medicine hat, Alta., on Monday, June 24, 2013. Officials in Medicine Hat said Monday they believe water levels on the South Saskatchewan River have peaked and that flooding won't be as severe as initially feared. Roughly 10,000 people were evacuated as the city of 60,000 prepared for the surge of water that swamped Calgary and surrounding areas last week. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

  • Residents and volunteers are in clean up mode in the community of Bowness as most of the homes have been pumped out with still some remaining submerged in water in Calgary, Alberta on Monday, June 24, 2013. Alberta's premier pledged $1 billion on Monday to help people recover from floods that devastated parts of the western Canadian province. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

  • Lisa Nguyen

    Resident Lisa Nguyen, right, cleans of the mud from photographs and negatives as volunteer Jacinta Babbitt, left, shows a clean picture of Nguyen when she was younger during flood clean up in the community of Bowness in Calgary, Alberta on Monday, June 24, 2013. Alberta's premier pledged $1 billion on Monday to help people recover from floods that devastated parts of the western Canadian province. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

  • Residents and volunteers are in flood clean up mode in the community of Bowness in Calgary, Alberta on Monday, June 24, 2013. Alberta's premier pledged $1 billion on Monday to help people recover from floods that devastated parts of the western Canadian province. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

  • Daniel Boddy, nine, helps with the clean-up work as hose lines from pumps drain water from flooded basement in the Bridgeland neighborhood in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, June 23, 2013. Heavy rains caused flooding, closed roads, and forced evacuation across Southern Alberta.

  • Daniel Boddy, nine, helps with the clean-up work as hose lines from pumps drain water from flooded basement in the Bridgeland neighborhood in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, June 23, 2013. Heavy rains caused flooding, closed roads, and forced evacuation across Southern Alberta.

  • A boy crosses a silt covered street in Chinatown as clean-up crews work in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, June 23, 2013. Heavy rains caused flooding, closed roads, and forced evacuation across Southern Alberta.

  • People place sand bags as the river rises rapidly and begins flooding in Medicine Hat, Alberta, on Sunday, June 23, 2013.

  • Homeowner Glenn Tibbles looks at the damage done by floodwaters to his home near downtown Calgary, Alberta, on Sunday, June 23, 2013. About 65,000 residents of Calgary were being allowed to return to their homes Sunday to assess the damage from flooding that has left Alberta's largest city awash in debris and dirty water.

  • Cpl. Brett Martens from CFB Edmonton helps a resident clear out damaged debris from their home near downtown Calgary, Alberta, on Sunday, June 23, 2013. About 65,000 residents of Calgary were being allowed to return to their homes Sunday to assess the damage from flooding that has left Alberta's largest city awash in debris and dirty water.

  • A home is inundated with floodwaters on the Siksika First Nation, Alberta, on Sunday, June 23, 2013. Alberta's municipal affairs minister says 27 communities are under a state of emergency as some areas begin to recover from flooding while others are still bracing for it.

  • People watch as the river rises rapidly and begins flooding in Medicine Hat, Alta., on Sunday, June 23, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

  • Floodwaters inundate homes in Medicine Hat, Alberta, on Sunday, June 23, 2013. Alberta's municipal affairs minister says 27 communities are under a state of emergency as some areas begin to recover from flooding while others are still bracing for it.

 

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