Opinion: Stopping the rivers and flooding the valleys is not a solution

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Adding another dam in drought-prone southern Alberta is like adding another lane for traffic. It doesn’t address the problem’s cause.

Yet, Alberta is on track to barrel ahead with more misguided damming plans. It isn’t altogether surprising; these plans align with the province’s track record for development, which historically has worked in opposition to nature, rather than with it.

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In Calgary, building within river floodplains has been an error in early urban planning with serious consequences. The 2013 flood is considered one of the costliest natural disasters in Canadian history, when half a year’s worth of rain fell on the city over three days, causing $5-billion in damage. More than 100,000 people from 26 communities were affected, with many evacuated and displaced as the Bow and Elbow rivers flowed at unprecedented rates.

The one-in-100-years flood was a reality check for the city, igniting preparations for the next.

The solutions brought forward by the Alberta government to mitigate future effects of flooding all involve more dam and reservoir infrastructure, designed to hold back the next heavy snowmelt or rainstorm.

This infrastructure comes at high economic, social and environmental costs as development displaces local livelihoods and wildlife, replacing native ecosystems with carbon-intensive structures that require substantial resources and long-term maintenance.

Two options remain from the government’s initial assessment: relocating the existing Ghost Reservoir infrastructure or building the proposed Glenbow East, a new dam between Cochrane and Calgary. Both have estimated costs close to $1 billion and 10-year timelines for development.

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Multiple communities and First Nations are expected to be affected, including Cochrane, Cottage Club Ghost Lake, Morley, Springbank, Stoney Nakoda First Nation and the Summer Village of Ghost Lake. Pursuing either would require relocating parts of the CP rail line and removing homes within the proposed reservoir boundaries.

For the Ghost option, the required railway relocation could encroach on Stoney Nakoda’s lands. Both sites currently provide great outdoor recreation opportunities that may be negatively affected; a portion of the Trans Canada Trail would be inundated should Glenbow East be pursued.

The Glenbow East plan would also mean flooding substantial portions of Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park, Haskayne Park and Bearspaw Legacy Park, decreasing Alberta’s total protected area. These natural spaces conserve tracts of native grasslands, one of the least protected and most threatened ecosystems in Alberta. The parks also act as important wildlife corridors, providing habitat for species moving along the river.

These dams may hold back flows for a time, but they do nothing to increase the landscape’s overall resilience to flooding and droughts.

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While seemingly opposites, these natural disasters are inextricably linked ecological processes, critical in shaping the parkland and prairie ecosystems of southern Alberta. Over the millennia, the region’s native plants and animals have adapted to thrive with little precipitation, as well as the keen ability to take advantage of water when it comes.

So why not explore the feasibility of an ecological option?

Substantial research has shown that implementing ecological restoration practices upstream, such as replanting riparian habitat, adding large wood and rock features, re-meandering and reopening stream channels, and restoring and retaining floodplains, wetlands, forests and beavers on the landscape are incredibly effective strategies for absorbing water and slow flows, mitigating effects downstream.

Protecting and investing in native ecosystems increases the landscape’s functional storage of water without the need for new dams and reservoirs.

With even a fraction of the costs, the work could begin immediately, and the benefits of this approach would be plentiful. A healthy environment provides invaluable ecosystem services, including increased air, water and soil quality, nutrient retention, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, recreation value and temperature regulation. This route feeds two birds with one seed; ecological restoration is a critical component in building resilience to climate change.

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And there is substantial work to be done.

The human footprint in Alberta is extensive and, upstream from Calgary, man-made structures and industry negatively affect the watershed. Stream connectivity is especially poor; numerous clearcuts, seismic lines, culverts, roads and developments already disrupt and fragment aquatic ecosystems, impeding their ability to function and provide benefits.

Another dam would be an additional impediment in an increasingly strained river basin, incurring more environmental destruction when the province desperately needs to protect what remains.

The root issue is that anthropogenic effects reduce the natural environment’s ability and capacity to hold and store water. So why exacerbate existing problems when alternatives are available? Let’s triple the return on investment. Why not restore habitats, mitigate natural disasters and build climate resilience all at once?

Kennedy Halvorson is a conservation specialist with Alberta Wilderness Association, who works on issues related to water, mining, species at risk and the Eastern Slopes.

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