06/25/2013 03:54 EDT | Updated 08/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Alberta Flooding: Too Early To Restrict Development In Flood Zones, Says Province

CALGARY - As people in southern Alberta begin to recover from the devastation caused by heavy flooding, the province says it is too soon to say whether it will restrict future development in flood-prone areas.

A government task force recommended such rules for municipalities in a report following severe flooding in 2005, but the recommendation has not been acted on.

Environment Minister Diana McQueen said Tuesday a new government committee will again study the question of building on flood plains.

Colin Lloyd, managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, suggested the extent of the recent flooding means some of the findings of the seven-year-old report are now out of date.

"Programs and arrangements and procedures that existed before have been swept aside," Lloyd said Tuesday.

"Things have changed. Rivers have shifted. Flood plains will not be the same as they were before and there is a tremendous amount of work that is going to inform how we will deal with mitigation going forward."

McQueen said it is also too soon to say whether the government will make a decision on whether municipalities should allow new construction in flood zones before major reconstruction work begins.

There is no initial estimate of the damage caused by the floods that have ravaged Calgary, High River and other communities.

On Monday the province pledged $1 billion for the first stage of its flood relief plan.

Alberta Environment officials said it has completed or is working to implement 13 of the 18 recommendations contained in the flood mitigation report that was presented to the government in 2006.

The work has included mapping the flood risk of 90 rivers and streams.

McQueen said none of these measures could have prevented the damage caused by the deluge and rising water that has soaked southern Alberta.

"I want to stress that what Alberta has experienced in this past week was unprecedented. More rain, more quickly over a larger area that has ever been seen before in this province," she said.

"No report or recommendation looking at the lessons of the past could have prepared us for this event."

New Democrat Leader Brian Mason said the government's explanation of its response to the 2006 flood protection report are misleading.

Mason said there is a clear link between the decision to shelve the 2006 report and how well communities were prepared for the recent unprecedented flooding.

"The Progressive Conservatives refused to implement the report's recommendation not to develop homes and buildings on flood plains," Mason said. "And now, the government can't give Albertans any clear answers on future flood mitigation strategies."

Experts have also been critical of the government's readiness to deal with floods.

The Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction said the devastation could have been reduced if the government had followed its own report on how to lessen the effects of severe flooding.

Brent Ward, a natural disaster expert at Simon Fraser University, said there are reports stemming back to the 1970s that warned about the dangers of allowing too much development on flood plains in the Calgary area, especially close to rivers.

Ward said there is no easy answer to the challenges facing governments as they consider what to do now to help prevent future disasters.

He said it would be difficult and costly to move people and businesses to safer ground.

Dams, dikes and other mitigation methods would also be expensive.

But Ward said computer models strongly suggest southern Alberta will suffer more extreme weather in the future.

He said the status quo is not an option.

"We can expect to see more of these events," Ward said from Vancouver. "It is just going to happen again."

— By John Cotter in Edmonton

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