The Springbank Project: Best Choice or Only Choice?

April 28, 2017 by CRC Action Group in News

On April 15, 2017, the Calgary Herald published an editorial letter written by Chief Lee Crowchild, on behalf of the Tsuut’ina Nation, regarding their stance on the Springbank Off-stream Reservoir.


In response, the following op-ed piece was written by Greg Johnson, on behalf of the CRCAG Board, and published in the Calgary Herald on April 28, 2017.



The Springbank Project: Best Choice or Only Choice?


With the fourth anniversary of the 2013 flood that devastated Calgary and so much of southern Alberta just around the corner, opponents of the Springbank Off-Stream Diversion Reservoir (or the Springbank Project), including affected landowners and the Tsuut’ina Nation, have voiced concerns about the merits of the project and whether appropriate consultation with the Tsuut’ina has occurred.  As we listen to these concerns, let us not forget that the flood risk for Calgary has not gone away.  We urge all levels of government, along with the Tsuut’ina Nation, to balance the immediate necessity to have flood mitigation for Calgary with any potential impact on Tsuut’ina lands and culture.  We can say with certainty that Calgary and southern Alberta will experience another 2013 flood; that is why the NDP government must proceed now with the Springbank Project.


A major flood in Calgary has been a historical inevitability since Fort Calgary was built at the confluence of two flood prone rivers. We cannot forget that the 2013 flood resulted in five deaths and over $5 billion dollars of damages. The City of Calgary suffered several hundred million dollars in damage to its own facilities, in addition to 75,000 people evacuated and thousands of homes and businesses flooded.  There are countless personal stories of financial, physical and mental distress and suffering that  remained long after the flood waters receded and the last repairs were completed.  Those stories don’t show up in the cost/benefit analysis.  There are empty lots, deserted homes and continued health and financial stresses that are reminders of what happened in June 2013.  A 2015 report estimated that over 7000 homes, apartments and businesses could flood in a next 1 in a 100 year flood, and that is what inevitably awaits us if we tolerate inaction from our elected officials.


Can Calgary and southern Alberta withstand another flood of the same magnitude and bounce back with the resiliency displayed in 2013?  Historically, Calgary has seen three floods on record that were 30% bigger than the 2013 flood.  These larger floods could wipe out the entire downtown core.  A high-rise office tower without functioning elevators and HVAC will sit empty for months until necessary repairs are complete. What happens to Calgary when our downtown core is shut down – especially in our current economic times? This question keeps us awake at night, because it is inevitable that floods will occur again.


People ask us – why won’t you support the McLean Creek Project, which will protect more people and doesn’t require private land? Here’s why.  We don’t view McLean Creek as a viable option.  Two governments have rejected the McLean Creek Project.  Two governments have obtained independent studies to compare the merits of the two projects and, based on science, have chosen the Springbank Project.  It’s a false narrative propagated by opponents of the Springbank Project to suggest that it’s as simple as choosing now to abandon the Springbank Project – after more than 2 years worth of design, engineering and environmental impact assessment have gone into it – and back the McLean Creek Project.  No government has supported that project – and we’d be foolish to expect that will change.


What’s the science behind the Springbank Project being the better alternative? An independent expert evaluated the Springbank and McLean Creek Projects using nine different criteria, including cost/benefit comparisons, environmental impacts, impact on First Nations, risks (including catastrophic failure) and sedimentation build up.  Neither project is currently designed to store water to meet future drinking water requirements or to be used to mitigate against drought conditions and thus this criteria was not used to compare the two projects.  Under four criteria, the projects were evaluated as being equal, but under five other criteria, the Springbank Project was evaluated as being a better choice.  This study is available online for anyone to review.  In short though, these are some  shortcomings of the McLean Creek Project as compared to the Springbank Project:


  • it is significantly more expensive, and thus has a lower cost benefit ratio and lower return for Alberta taxpayers;
  • it has more environmental impacts on the project area;
  • as it is a dam built in the river, it has a risk of catastrophic failure if hit by a flood during the construction process (which would impact all downstream areas);
  • it has a longer environmental review process, assuming it is determined to be environmentally acceptable (up to 69 months, and longer if well-funded opponents use the courts for delay tactics);
  • it is more susceptible to sedimentation build up;
  • it has longer construction timeline as it is being built on stream; and
  • the catchment area for retaining floodwaters at the McLean Creek Project is smaller than the Springbank Project (which is located much further downstream and closer to Calgary).


The rationale, scope, basic design and impacts of the Springbank Project have been publicly available for well over two years and can be found online by searching “Alberta Government Flood Mitigation Studies”.  The reports include a cost/benefit analysis of all three projects and a 410 page environmental analysis of the McLean Creek Project.


People ask – but what about the people of Bragg Creek and Redwood Meadows who are upstream of the Springbank Project?   The Springbank Project includes local area mitigation for Bragg Creek ($33 million), Redwood Meadows, which is on Tsuut’ina land ($9 million), and other areas that were impacted by the 2013 flood. In fact, Bragg Creek is now proceeding with the design, planning and construction of 1 in a 100 year flood mitigation, which is simply not available to Calgary without upstream mitigation. Redwood Meadows will also have 1 in a 100 flood mitigation long before Calgary.  Interestingly, Redwood Meadows had a berm built in the late 1990’s that protected it from significant damages during the 2013 flood, proving that local mitigation can be very effective.  High River has also proceeded with a series of local mitigation projects (e.g., local berms and dykes) and now touts itself as the most flood resilient town in Alberta.  Calgary, however, remains unprepared for the next flood and local mitigation alone (which Calgary has in several places) cannot protect our city.  Large scale upstream mitigation is required.


While it would be ideal to see both projects proceed, we agree with the expert conclusions that the best first mitigation project, is the Springbank Project. Based on the work that has been done, the McLean Creek Project is clearly a far riskier option.  We fear the choice is actually between the Springbank Project and no upstream mitigation at all.


It is absolutely vital that our elected officials move forward aggressively with upstream mitigation on both the Bow and the Elbow rivers. On the Elbow river, the best choice is the Springbank Project.  It will protect lives, health (both physical and mental) and property.  A failure to act on the Springbank Project cannot be tolerated.  Calgary, Bragg Creek and Redwood Meadows must be protected, and we call on our provincial, federal, municipal and Tsuut’ina governments, and our neighbors  to work cooperatively for that greater good.


The Calgary River Communities Action Group