Open Letter to the Alberta Government: Bow River Water Alternatives: Lessons Learned from the Study of SR1

I recently signed up for Alberta government information announcements and hence, received the notification of the open houses for feedback on the alternatives under consideration for flood and drought management on the Bow River.  I am a resident of Calgary, and like most Calgarians do not live on the floodplain, and am not directly impacted by flooding of the rivers running through the city of Calgary.  But I am concerned about water management for future generations.  For full disclosure, I am also a Springbank landowner who stands to lose a ranch that has been in our family for five generations should the proposed Elbow River flood mitigation project (SR1) proceed.

Firstly, I would like you to commend you on the approach to seek public input before making your decision.  Sadly, that was not the case where Elbow River flood mitigation was concerned and that project is now (rightfully) hung up in regulatory, indigenous relations, and public opinion purgatory.  In the panic of the aftermath of the flood of 2013, the SR1 project was chosen with little science and even less public participation.  The NDP environment and transportation ministers, in spite of committing to do so, never once met with landowners or upstream communities who were impacted by the SR1 project.  So taking the time to get valuable public input will, undoubtedly, make the path forward easier for Bow River water management. 

Secondly, the notion of water management – both flood and drought/storage (and I would add utility for fire suppression as well as potential recreation) – is a sound basis for decision making.  The more holistic you can make your deliberations, the more likely you are to land on an alternative that meets the scientific, environmental and social goals that need to be considered. Again, contrast that to the singular focus of flood mitigation for one community (Calgary) that characterized the Elbow River decision.

I have little knowledge of the specific details of the three alternatives for the Bow River that are being considered.  However, in terms of what I would share regarding the open house feedback opportunities, I would offer the following:

  1. Take a holistic approach to the challenge.  Flood mitigation, drought management, fire suppression, and public recreation should all factor in to your decision.
  2. Give the public input and especially the Indigenous feedback you receive lots of weight.  Your consultants do not know it all (this, I believe, was one of the biggest flaws in the SR1 experience – the consultants got too invested and committed to a flawed alternative.  Their ears and minds were wide closed during the “open houses” they held to rationalize their decision).
  3. Take a personal and active interest in the review.  Being ignored by the NDP ministers was both maddening and hurtful for those of us who stand to lose so much if SR1 goes ahead.
  4. The issue does not start and end in Calgary ( I say this as a proud Calgarian ).  Rural Alberta matters and deserves the same influence and protection as urban citizens.
  5. Be careful of exaggerated claims of damage and destruction – they ring hollow.  For example, the current narrative that a flood of the Elbow River will take out downtown Calgary and disrupt 1.4 million Calgarians is so exaggerated it is not credible.  Most Calgarians live and work in the suburbs, and the energy that feeds the Alberta economy is not produced in downtown Calgary.
  6. Do not be afraid to learn as you go forward.  You can’t possibly know it all as you head into your deliberations, so don’t be afraid to learn from and incorporate new information as it becomes available.  Trying to explain away good and valid information is a recipe for disaster.
  7. If your government is serious about your pre-election commentary regarding property rights, look for an alternative that honors that commentary.  Again, contrast that to the Elbow River project (SR1) which, should it proceed, would be one of the largest expropriations of privately held land in provincial history.  As a long time Conservative supporter, both provincially and federally, I would expect the first choice for public works would always be public land, not the expropriation of privately held land.
  8. Cost matters.  As an example, the explosion of the costs of the SR1 project from $150M to what will probably push $1B, should push a fiscally responsible regime to look for a more economic solution.  Even with the sunk costs of the SR1 proposal, an alternative to dam the Elbow River in the McLean Creek area would likely save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
  9. Look to build relationships with and among stakeholders.  The confrontation approach of pitting communities against each other (eg. SR1) will only lead to delays.

I offer these thoughts in the spirit of trying to make your deliberations for water management on the Bow River more successful and expedient than the challenging experience that Elbow River deliberations have been.  My personal experience in the Elbow River fiasco has given me a unique insight ( and many wounds ) into how these projects should be approached.  I sincerely hope there is something in the above comments that you find useful.

Lee Drewry
Calgary resident and Springbank landowner who stands to lose a ranch that has been in his family for five generations should the proposed Elbow River flood mitigation project (SR1) proceed.

Source: Springbank Community Association