How To Lose A Forest For The Trees, Or A Reservoir For The Drops

July 30, 2015 by CRC Action Group in Calgary River Communities, News

As our Members have known since the beginning, a principal Mandate of CRCAG has been to advocate for upstream flood mitigation infrastructure on both the Bow and Elbow Rivers. No other strategy can keep huge volumes of water out of our City and reduce the need for local, area-specific and typically much more costly infrastructure, and address the insidious problem of groundwater.


For the Elbow River, you will have read articles or seen news clips regarding the relative merits of the Springbank Off-Stream Reservoir Project and the McLean Creek In-Stream Dam. As we said in our advertisements in recent Calgary Herald and Sun newspapers, CRCAG strongly favours the completion of the Springbank Project currently underway, as the first priority mitigation project on the Elbow River, for many reasons that we have already stated. In this post, we thought we’d provide further comments.


First, though, we feel it necessary to provide our views on why this discussion is in play at all, considering the Springbank Project has been in-flight for months and taxpayers have already made very significant investments in it. How is a question that threatens the completion of meaningful and prompt mitigation on the Elbow River, that is closer to completion than any project since the Glenmore Reservoir, even back on the table?


Prior to May’s Provincial election, the City of Calgary and CRCAG both issued surveys to all political parties that asked several questions, including plans for upstream mitigation on the Elbow River. Responses to our survey are here and are the same as those given to the City Survey. We raised our concerns with the response received from the NDP as it suggested that it would halt the in-flight Springbank Project in favour of the McLean Creek Project, effectively negating the investments made to date and creating the real risk of completing any mitigation on the Elbow River at all, given the contingencies to the McLean Creek Project that we’ll elaborate upon below. The reasons given by the NDP in support for the McLean Creek Project were cryptic and did not reference the data and studies generated to date.


After the NDP won the election in May, we reviewed their “Election Platform 2015” document, being their official policy platform, and found no reference to the words “flood” or “mitigation”. In searching the Internet to see if we could determine the genesis of the Survey response, we did find similar language posted on the Facebook page of the NDP candidate, and new MLA for Banff-Cochrane. That page is no longer live.


So, given this, we did not see the Survey response as settled NDP policy that is at all binding on it. Our view was affirmed by comments made by Premier Notley post-election. However, opponents to the Springbank Project seized on the Survey response as constituting an NDP “promise”, the media followed suit, and the impression was created that the Springbank Project was officially cancelled because of a firm policy position on the matter. However, since then, the Province has confirmed that the Springbank Project is currently proceeding. All key NDP decision makers are now being briefed on the matter and being provided with the significant volume of materials, data and studies that have been compiled to date.


Now, with respect to upstream mitigation for the Elbow River and the general flood protection of this City, we offer the following observations. This is a long post, but we think an important one.


Last September, when the Prentice Government made the decision to focus taxpayer dollars on furthering the work needed to complete the Springbank Project in priority to the McLean Creek Project and the Glenmore Diversion Tunnel, it appeared that for the first time in 15 months, real political leadership focused on upstream flood mitigation on the Elbow River to keep water out of this City, was on display. After months of reviewing previous studies regarding the management of the Elbow watershed that go back over a century, and additional extensive study by the Province of Alberta, the Southern Alberta Reserve Task, Stantec, AMEC and a host of other professionals, the Government determined that it had sufficient information regarding the available solutions, and their relative merits, to focus its immediate investments on the Springbank Project and to bring it to completion as soon as possible to protect this City. That was expected in 2018, years ahead of the projected timeline for the McLean Creek Projects or the Glenmore Tunnel Projects, and at a significantly less financial cost and environmental impact. The Province has posted just some of its project work here (online searches will link to plenty of Provincially generated materials) and here is a link to the studies it has conducted and commissioned on these larger Projects.


One comprehensive study that was underway at the time, but not completed for publication, is the “Benefit/Cost Analysis for Flood Mitigation Projects for the City of Calgary” prepared by the IBI Group for the Province, with financial modelling of the benefits to upstream mitigation against the projected costs for each of the three Elbow River mitigation Projects as then scoped and configured. This was publically released in February of this year and here are a few important considerations regarding it:

  • The IBI Study applies financial modelling to determine flood losses, as it is impossible to know these with any absolute certainty. The model has been used and refined by IBI for decades in Alberta and elsewhere, and by other agencies in North America. It appears to us to be robust and defensible.
  • The IBI Study specifically did not attempt to account for the social and environmental benefits or costs, only financial. For example, no accounting for personal safety and lost lives were factored in (as though it could be), and no estimate of the environmental damage to Calgary and Southern Alberta from the 2013 flood (which clearly is the “baseline” to any environmental impact assessment) was calculated.
  • As with all models, best available data was used or generated to limit assumptions. But when applied to any ongoing project, that data is refined and assumptions replaced with better information. Any such limitations apply to both the benefit and cost analysis for all three Projects. The important point is that the modelling parameters were applied to all three Projects, with an “apples to apples” comparison approach taken as best as possible.


The IBI Study linked above clearly concluded that, as between the three Projects, the Springbank Project showed the most promising benefit/cost ratio on the parameters studied.


In our view, this more disciplined analysis confirmed the work done previous to the completion of the IBI Study by the Province and its professional consultants, that demonstrated that the Springbank Project was superior to both McLean Creek and the Glenmore Tunnel Projects, as the initial project to be undertaken by the Province. We’ve always maintained that the Elbow River, like the Bow River, should be mitigated to at least a 1:200 year event level and that completion of two of the three Projects should be undertaken on the Elbow, but to protect this City as quickly and effectively as possible, the Springbank Project appeared to be the right place to start.


Most importantly, studies indicated that the environmental impact to the McLean Creek Project, being an on-stream water retaining dam in a Provincial Park, would invite much more environmental scrutiny, stakeholder input, study, mitigation planning and obstacles to overcome, than the Springbank Project. This, and recent experiences in building any environmentally challenging infrastructure in this Province, introduces very real contingencies to the McLean Creek Project being completed at all, let alone that every year’s delay in completing any Project diminishes the political will to do so. What’s the half-life to political urgency? Each year of delay also exposes Calgary to unnecessary financial (not to mention social and environmental) risk: the IBI Study calculates “average annual damages” from flood risk at up to almost $20MM/year and there is a 23% chance of the City experiencing a 1:20 year event in any five year period. The environmental review for McLean Creek posted here outlined the environmental considerations and estimates the review and approval phase to be up to 69 months, before earth starts to move. We legitimately fear it could be considerably longer when environmental and other stakeholder groups (all of which are unknown at this time) fully engage.


And construction of the McLean Creek Project will certainly face challenges. Given that it is an on-stream dam of a navigable waterway, we understand that construction can only occur in 3-4 weeks of the year. Further, while some have criticized the large volume of earth to be moved for the Springbank Project, that ignores that that material will actually be used to construct the reservoir itself, so remains on site. In contrast, we understand that the building materials for the McLean Creek Project will have to be transported to site as the area is comprised of large and porous gravel deposits.


For these and a host of other reasons, we strongly believe that the Springbank Project must be the first to proceed. Given all the variables in play, we believe the Springbank Project clearly satisfies the single most important criteria to any of the three Projects. It’s achievable. It’s achievable before the next provincial election! And it is currently underway, with significant taxpayer investment to date that would be lost if halted. Given the very many challenges facing this City right now, the Springbank Project would be a tremendously important initiative and a clear win for this City and this new Government. Cancelling or even delaying the Springbank Project  is unnecessary, unjustified and would be seen as yet again kicking the political can down the road, to the immediate detriment of this City and Province. We cannot continue to expose this City and Province to real, known and ongoing risk.


Certainly not chief among the reasons to support the Springbank Project was the outcome of any benefit/cost analysis based on financial modelling. This is not to say that gaining a sense of any infrastructure’s “return on investment” isn’t important, particularly when Provincial or Federal taxpayer’s money is in use. But having very directly seen the phenomenal damage, public safety risk and palpable threat to this City’s long term viability, there is no question in our mind that upstream mitigation is critically important, regardless of the cost. So long as it gets done. For decades, what happened in 2013 (or 2005 or 1932 or other years) has been absolutely known based on historical precedence of much worse events (1883, 1897), but largely ignored. Time and again, the necessary political will has not been sustained, if it was even ever mounted. Economically, socially, environmentally — from any perspective, the “flood, rebuild, repeat” model simply cannot stand. Far too much is now at stake as this City has grown from its original settlement at Fort Calgary, at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers. That some financial benefit/cost modelling has been done by the Province to attempt to quantify at least the financial aspect to the risk relative to Project costs is certainly helpful, but not determinative of the need for mitigation, or even of the first priority Project to be undertaken, notwithstanding that such modelling clearly points to the Springbank Project. We are not talking about, after all, a piece of manufacturing machinery where calculating net present values or internal rates of return is key. When it comes to upstream mitigation strategies on both the Bow and the Elbow Rivers, the “do nothing, kick the can down the road” approach maintains this City’s vulnerability to incalculable risks.


In our view, this was behind the Prentice Government’s decision to pursue the Springbank Project – a holistic understanding of the issues and enough information to make a decision to actually achieve a result. It was political leadership when so much had been lacking to that point. Which is why we remain so baffled by ongoing assaults on aspects of the IBI Study’s conclusions, as though altering some aspects of the underlying numbers would produce such a change to the benefit/cost ratios as to override all the other considerations that support the Springbank Project as the first priority, and thereby risk the real possibility that no mitigation is achieved on the Elbow River. We’ve spoken to the IBI Group about some of these challenged input numbers and feel that the analysis done to arrive at them is entirely defensible, but at the end of the day these numbers don’t matter if the end result is that a mitigation project isn’t actually completed. We’ve seen the same basic criticisms raised in the media innumerable times, always with the sly innuendo that because the IBI Study was not publically released at the time the Prentice Government announced its support of the Springbank Project, that certainly the professionals involved in the benefit/cost analysis, and presumably all study and work done on all three Projects after September, was engineered to justify that announcement. That is of course ridiculous and insulting  to all those professionals and Provincial employees involved in this work. We’ve also seen little desire in the media to really understand or inform the public as to the larger perspective of the risks, the decades of failures to act, the real contingencies and challenges to the McLean Creek Project, the weaknesses to the numbers in the IBI Study relative to it, a deeper understanding of the studies published by the Province, and many other subjects regarding this broader context. Instead, criticism appears to be intent on supporting one perspective, sometimes using dated or non-public or anecdotal information portrayed as fact, to justify what we consider to be suspect conclusions.


The dogged focus on challenging the benefit/cost outcomes reached in the IBI Study simply misses the point. Few public infrastructure projects have seen such a focus, if a benefit/cost analysis was even completed. Most are justified on the fairly straight forward question of current cost, even if large, versus a future and much higher cost, to address the inevitable foreseen need. And a project from that perspective may make complete sense. There are numerous examples of this. And the McLean Creek Project is not without significant questions of its own relative to cost and timing. What will the construction costs to McLean Creek actually be after the many additional years of environmental review it faces, assuming it is allowed to proceed at all? What are the currently uncalculated costs to address the environmental impacts yet to be clearly defined? And most critically, after what could be two election cycles by that time, will there be political appetite, or even memory, to do so (unless of course Calgary suffers another flood; which is a real possibility)? Is Calgary, or Bragg Creek/Redwood Meadows (for which funding of local mitigation solutions had been earmarked and provided in part, but not utilized) prepared to take those risks? And what are the total costs to this City and Province in hard dollars and lost investment if that gamble doesn’t pay off in that time?


Perhaps the most analogous example in Canadian history to the upstream mitigation challenges currently facing Calgary and Southern Alberta, is the “Red River Floodway” in the Winnipeg region, originally derisively referred to as “Duff’s Ditch” after Premier Duff Roblin who, despite criticism, built it in the mid-1960’s. A fascinating and detailed historical account is provided here and, in many respects, mirrors Calgary’s current situation.


Duff’s Ditch was built in response to the “Great Flood” of 1950 which was described as “one of the greatest natural disasters in Canadian history”, which cost over $125MM at that time to repair flood damage. Like Calgary, Winnipeg’s downtown narrowly escaped inundation. Some facts of particular note:

  • A $72.5MM capital expense was projected (amortized over 50 years at a 4% discount rate) at a time when the population of all of Manitoba was only about 900,000 and the net Provincial annual revenue stood at $74MM. The final cost was about $63MM and the Federal Government paid 60% to the Province’s 40%. The build was the second largest earthmoving project to the Panama Canal. A cost/benefit analysis was done prior to the commencement of the project and showed a positive 1:2.73 ratio while saving a projected $14MM average annual damage cost.
  • Hundreds of properties had to be expropriated in whole or in part across a wide area of Southern Manitoba to facilitate construction. The target protection was to the 1:165 year event.
  • The Floodway was first tested soon after completion in  1968 and many times since, most severely in the 1997 “Flood of the Century” where more than 66,000 cubic meters per second of water were diverted (Niagara Falls flows at 2,400, the same as Calgary at the Zoo in 2013). Yet the Floodway held with minimal damage and it is estimated that it averted $4B in damages in that single 1997 event. Over the years, the frequency and severity of flooding in Manitoba has been much more than first anticipated and the Province is now upgrading the Floodway to a 1:700 year standard, spending over $600MM to do so.
  • Despite an initial $63MM cost (at that time), the Floodway has been estimated to  have averted over $32B in damages in the past 50 years (see here), with many more decades of service to come. The actual realized cost/benefit ratio for the single 1997 “Flood of the Century” event was 1:40. That is an incredible multiplier and Duff’s Ditch is, arguably, the reason Winnipeg still exists today.


The following from the linked article says it all:
Tested under severe flood conditions, the Red River Floodway silenced its critics, proved the sagacity of its proponents, and established beyond dispute the viability of the concept, the efficacy of its design, and its almost inestimable worth in cost-benefit terms. The floodway proved capable of controlling floodwaters even in excess of its design flood function, and saved the federal government, the province, the municipality, and many local property owners, a total of billions of dollars in expenditures that would otherwise have been required for emergency flood abatement, flood relief, rebuilding, and clean-ups. Although the original cost-benefit for the floodway project was estimated at 1:2.73 calculated over a fifty-year period of only emergency use during years of extraordinarily high spring floods, the floodway was in operation twenty times during the 29 years prior to 1997 to divert threatening floodwaters past Winnipeg; and in but one year of almost unprecedented flooding—during the Flood of the Century in 1997—yielded a cost-benefit ratio of roughly 1:40, a phenomenal return on construction costs.


Closer to home, the Glenmore Reservoir was finished in 1932 for $3.6MM, and held back flood waters that year just prior to its completion in the last major Spring flood on the Elbow until 2005. In 2013, because the City rapidly drained the Reservoir in the few days before the flood, and because of the pure good fortune that the rain stopped when it did, the Glenmore muted a 1:185 year flood into a 1:90 year event, saving much of downtown in the process. Now calculate that cost/benefit ratio.


What’s needed now is the political leadership to build the upstream mitigation this City needs on the Elbow and the Bow Rivers, starting with the Springbank Project as the first priority project. Make it happen, because it can happen, and years before the alternatives (assuming they ever are built). Make it happen before the next election. Failure to do so will be the same failure in governance that this City and Province has seen over decades, and a shamefully missed opportunity. And then get on with other mitigation projects that are required on the Elbow and Bow Rivers to full protect Calgary.


Your CRCAG Team