By Janet Keeping, Leader, Green Party of Alberta
I have enormous sympathy for those many Albertans who have suffered from the recent flooding and continuing heavy rains. I appreciate too the exemplary efforts of emergency workers, government officials, clean-up crews and the thousands of volunteers in dozens of communities who have done so much to get the recovery under way as quickly as possible.
But when the immediate crisis subsides, Albertans need to have a sustained public conversation about what led to the 2013 floods and what can be done to reduce the likelihood that such devastation happens again. Many questions demand answering but one thing is clear: the provincial government, together with the municipalities, needs to take much more serious steps than it has in the past to implement both flood minimization and flood damage mitigation strategies.
As many people now know from recent media reports, flood damage mitigation was addressed by a provincial government committee set up after the 2005 floods. It was chaired by the now former-MLA George Groeneveld. The committee’s report was submitted to Cabinet in 2006, but for reasons left unexplained it was not released to the public until 2012. Some but not all of the 18 recommendations contained in the report have been acted upon. But even if they had been fully implemented (which they have not), that would not have been enough, for entirely missing from the report is any mention of the potential to minimize flooding through better regulation of land and resource development both upstream and within populated areas.
The mandate of the Groeneveld committee was limited: it was “to develop a Provincial strategy for mitigating damages to communities where the damage occurs due to flooding from a river or stream.” So right away we can see that the committee’s work could never have been sufficient to the task at hand, for the challenge is not just mitigation of damage but minimization of the likelihood and scale of the flooding itself. To reduce the harm done by automobile accidents we wear seat belts and install air-bags but we also take steps to prevent accidents in the first place!
We have long known that logging and oil and gas operations in the foothills of the Rockies can radically increase soil erosion and correspondingly increase the risk of flooding downstream communities. This is one of several reasons why so many Albertans have objected to industrial development in the foothills. Worse, there is evidence that the Alberta government has approved logging in the foothills not for the commercial value of the timber produced but for the express purpose of increasing water flow. And this has been done without taking into account that such practices could make flooding more likely and more severe!
At the same time, in Alberta’s urban areas much development has taken place absolutely heedless of its impact on flooding. Many people are writing about the need to limit new development in flood plains after the 2013 flood but that speaks only to the damage mitigation side. The how development occurs outside flood plains must also be addressed. For example, the way roads are laid out in newly developed areas can either accelerate or slow down run-off and the paving of lanes in our urban areas has lessened “permeability” and thus increased the likelihood of flooding.
Indeed the 2006 report itself acknowledges that the committee led by Groeneveld left significant matters unexamined even taking only flood damage mitigation into account. It notes that a “second stage of the flood mitigation strategy” could include “consultation with [an] additional stakeholder” – Aboriginal communities.
Would the First Nations communities of Siksika or Morley have been as hard hit by the 2013 flood if this suggestion had been acted upon?
It would be wrong to omit any mention of climate change in this context. There is strong evidence to support the view that weather patterns globally are undergoing significant change leading in some places, including southwest Alberta, to more frequent and more severe flooding.
Most people in Alberta would agree that the province has for many years profited immensely from hydrocarbon development. But in Bob Dylan’s words, the times they are a-changin’. Albertans need to engage collectively in a thoughtful, thorough and non-defensive exploration of our obligation to greatly reduce our carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions.
Do we have a provincial government that is up to leading that discussion? No, we do not. But if Albertans vote differently in the next election, we could.
This opinion piece first appeared on the Troy Media website: