Climate change and development a recipe for future Elbow River flooding, U of C study finds

A new study out of the University of Calgary says a combination of climate change and construction along the Elbow River may be a recipe for recurrent flooding in the future.

'We need to plan for mitigation and adaptation now, and think about our resource management for the future'

Nearly five years ago, heavy flooding in Alberta forced thousands of people from their homes. In this file photo, the swollen Elbow River overflows its banks in southwest Calgary following heavy rainfall in June 2013. (Tara Fedun/CBC)

A new study out of the University of Calgary says a combination of climate change and construction along the Elbow River may be a recipe for recurrent flooding in the future.

The study, which focuses on the impact of rain, winter thaw and development on the river, has been a seven-year project for University of Calgary post-doctoral fellow Babak Farjad. He began his research two years before the 2013 Alberta flood.

In short, the study found that more urban development along the Elbow comes with a higher risk of flooding. Farjad's work factors in climate change — which could mean more precipitation, particularly in spring and winter — and found the combination of the two spells a problem for developed areas.

Farjad said his study is not about stopping development near the river, but managing development.

"We need to plan for mitigation and adaptation now, and think about our resource management for the future," Farjad said.

The study concluded the combined effects of future climate and land-use or land-cover changes on the river's watershed means the risk of flooding will go up over the next 50 years.

Babak Farjad is a researcher with the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering. (CBC)

"Heavy snowfall, increased rain and rapid spring melts due to warmer temperatures are all significant contributors to flooding, but it's human development that aggravates that potential by replacing natural ground cover and forest with buildings, asphalt and concrete," said the university in a release.

Farjad said that when it comes to future development, smart land use planning is necessary.

"[There are] several alternatives that we can consider, like a large dam, like forest management, land use and land cover management. Just keep the flood plain [in] its natural condition," he said.

The project's co-supervisor, Anil Gupta, says he thinks construction along the Elbow needs to be carefully considered.

"I would say along those rivers I think we need to maintain the natural landscape to allow floods to pass or flows to pass," Gupta said.

With files from Anis Heydari