How Calgary has prepared for the next big flood in the 4 years since 2013's disaster

The risk from major floods like those that devastated Calgary and surrounding areas in 2013 has been reduced by about 30 per cent, the city says in an update on the fourth anniversary of the disaster. We break down what's been done and what's yet to come — including some big-ticket items.

Many projects completed in 4 years, costing millions, but hopes bank on 2 very big upstream storage ideas

Flooding across Alberta in 2013 cost roughly $5 billion in damages. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

This story was originally published June 20, 2017.

Four years ago, Calgary and surrounding areas were devastated by flooding. 

The water spilled over the banks of the city's two major rivers in June 2013, causing millions in damage and the death of a Calgary woman, Lorraine Gerlitz

It was a dark day for the city, but Calgarians pulled on their gum boots and got to work on the recovery. The city got to work, too and, with the help of both the federal and provincial governments, set about making a flood-resilient city.

Here's a look at what they've accomplished so far. 

  • Let us know your thoughts on the city's progress on flood protection in the comments below

Big picture

After the flood, an expert panel came up with 27 recommendations for Calgary. The city says half are complete and they are all underway, even the more difficult ones like addressing the changing climate and adopting new design standards.

Aerial view of flooded city
Flooding affected many neighbourhoods in Calgary including Chinatown, the Beltline and Sunnyside. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

But if a flood like in 2013 rolled through Calgary tomorrow, there would still be an impact.

"All the work that the city and province have done have reduced the risk by about 30 per cent," said Frank Frigo, leader of watershed analysis with water resources for the City of Calgary. 

"That's fairly significant. That represents approximate annual risk of around $52 million per year."

Without any mitigation in place, the city's damage assessment study conducted after the flood found the city would average $170 million a year in damage costs. That was brought down to $115 million each year with completed and underway projects, such as installing barriers and higher gates at the Glenmore Reservoir.

The city plans to raise the gates at the Glenmore dam, which would double capacity of the reservoir by 2020. (CBC)

But there are big ticket items on the horizon.

For the Elbow River, the city is advocating for the Springbank dry dam project in combination with work at the Glenmore Reservoir. The province estimates the dry dam would cost $245 million and be ready for the 2021 flood season.

Solutions for upstream storage on the Bow River are being drafted for the province, and will be submitted in a report later this year.

"The big items upstream do also need to be put in place for Calgary to reach its goal of full flood resilience," said Frigo. 

Mitigation projects

So how much has it cost? Well, it's complicated. 

The city says there was $400 million in damages to the city's infrastructure alone. But costs have not been tallied for some projects still in the design phase.

Calgary's Mayor Naheed Nenshi speaks to thousands of volunteers hoping to help with flood relief in 2013. The flood recovery spirit spurred on Neighbour Day to celebrate how people came together. (John Rieti/CBC)

Calgary received funding under the province's disaster recovery program, or flood recovery and erosion control program (FREC), for initial flood work —188 projects' worth — to repair damage, which is different than flood resiliency work. The city says the disaster recovery program final reconciliation is not yet complete, but the current estimate is $52 million in recoveries from FREC.

The province committed $150 million for Calgary's flood resiliency program under the Alberta Community Resilience Program (ACRP) over 10 years. So far, more than $40 million of the fund has been spent. The remaining will be parsed out by $15 million each year. Per the program guidelines, the city has to put up its own funds: 90/10 (province/city) for the first $3 million of a project and 70/30 for every dollar above $3 million.

The province entered into a five-year agreement with TransAlta in 2016, at $5.5 million per year, to help control the flow of the Bow River using the Ghost Reservoir.

The province and TransAlta have reached a deal for using the Ghost Reservoir as a flood mitigation tool, but the city hopes it will go past 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The city says the federal government has also supplied more than $10 million. 

Flood work includes:

  • Stabilizing riverbanks.
  • Repairing sinkholes and removing debris from the river.
  • Making pathways more flood resilient.
  • Raising the Glenmore gates to double capacity by 2020. Estimated cost $80 million.
  • Constructing a new berm for the Calgary Zoo, which is nearly done.
  • Hardening, improving and raising bridges (five pedestrian bridges failed and others were damaged).
  • Constructing the Dean House flood wall to protect Inglewood.
  • Bulking out emergency crisis services and river tracking.
  • Improving the Roxboro and Sunnyside sanitary liftstations and updating the Bonnybrook Wastewater Treatment Plant by 2022.
This is the flood wall constructed near the Dean House by Fort Calgary. (CBC )

The future wishlist includes:

  • The Upper Plateau separation project, which will essentially separate the Sunnyside and Hillhurst stormwater system from residents who live up the hill. Estimated cost: more than $37 million.
  • Removal of gravel bars. Estimated cost: up to $20 million, and not eligible for ACRP funding.
  • Low-height barriers in Bowness, downtown, Sunnyside and Pearce Estates-Inglewood. Most of them are on city land, but 90 or more property owners could be affected in Bowness. Estimated cost: up to $75 million with a completion date of 2025.
  • Better land use policies and best practices for building in a flood plain are expected, like restricting "sensitive uses" such as daycares, assisted living, emergency services and even basement secondary suites. The city will look at buying properties to allow the river to flow unimpeded in areas, and how basements in the floodway are constructed — including materials used.
The city is working on getting design standards in place for homes in or near the floodway.

Flooding also wiped out park space throughout the city. Recovery work started with the most dangerous areas, and now the city is finishing up damaged areas that were more stable.

"We are in pretty good shape," said Andrew King, project manager with Calgary Parks. "We've covered off at least 95 per cent of the work that needed to be done to recover from the flood."

The city had to work in compliance with provincial and federal regulations, especially when working in the river between a small window of July 15 to Sept. 15 so as not to disturb the fish.

"That's the thing that we had to pace ourselves, and that's why it's taken so long," said King. "Four years later, we are obviously still working on flood recovery."

Banking on upstream storage 

A report prepared for council in April stated there were a "number of risks" remaining for Calgary's flood mitigation plans. 

A new reservoir on the Bow River may not be built, and there are continued challenges for the Springbank dry dam project.

Springbank dam opposition in 2014

6 years ago
Duration 2:08
Springbank-area residents react to plans about a dry dam west of Calgary that could protect the city's Elbow River from flooding.

Even with higher gates on the Glenmore dam, a significant flood risk remains without the upstream storage projects.

"Similar to the Elbow, without additional new storage on the Bow River, we would not be able get to the point where an event as large as 2013 would not cause significant impacts," said Frigo. 

"And so the city has worked with the province co-chairing something called the Bow River Working Group that's looked at opportunity for new storage and basically looking at the possibility of new dams on the Bow."

Some 1,300 troops were deployed to help with rescues and the mandatory evacuations that forced up to 75,000 people from their homes in Calgary. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

The city also wants the TransAlta agreement for flood control on the Ghost Reservoir to go past 2021, but that's between the province and company.

The province is expecting to release new provincial flood hazard area maps this year. The city says right now it creates uncertainty for the city's potential flood policies.

Monitoring river 24/7 to give better warning times

Calgary has a steep, flashy, mountain-dominated basin — so the city doesn't get much warning before a flood threat. Other areas, like Winnipeg, have up to 20 days warning to prepare and get sandbags in place.

In 2013, flooding began in Calgary on June 20 and there were evacuations in place in low-lying areas later in the day.

If the same flooding happened tomorrow, the city says it could provide better warning times. 

"There is really no bucket, or no bathtub, to slow down the flow that comes from the mountains," the city's Frank Frigo told a flood mitigation meeting this year. "We are dealing with a system that is naturally very flashy." For example, this flash flood after a thunderstorm in August 2011. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

Frigo says the TransAlta agreement helps to reduce flooding, as well as protection at the zoo, the Calgary Stampede grounds, Deane House and ongoing work at West Eau Claire, but it "would continue to have impacts."

He works with the city's team monitoring the river 24/7 in flood season, which runs May 15 to July 15. They often utilize the province's river monitoring tools, which includes a smarthphone app that residents can download.

The Water Emergency Operations Centre (H2OC) is used by the city's water services in the event of a flood. (City of Calgary)

He says there are high levels on the Bow River through Calgary because of a quick snow melt in the mountains, but its not expected to cause damage. The boating advisory issued earlier this month was lifted Tuesday afternoon.

Calgary has had some precipitation this year, but it was much heavier — 200 millimetres in the mountains and 345 millimetres near High River — in the days before the 2013 flood.

Know your flood

The option of an incentive program for residential sump pumps and backflow valves was being explored, but the city also wants citizens to get educated on how flooding impacts them.

They've posted flood maps on the city's website to show what residents can expect in five-year, 10-year, 20-year, 50-year and 100-year flood events.

The Bow River was running so high that it wiped out five pedestrian bridges and threatened others, including the Louis Bridge near downtown Calgary. (Submitted by Paúl Valentin Lara)

Tony Morris is the co-president of the Calgary River Community Action Group, which has morphed into an advocacy group over the years. He says Calgary has a lot of development in harm's way — like downtown — but has seen two floods even bigger than in 2013. 

Morris says it will happen again and work is needed. 

"This city was on its knees four years ago, and it had a profound impact to the economy and massive amounts of damages," he said. 

"And in a sense we've been given an opportunity to ensure that we do things that protect the city from being in a similar place."

A flood diversion tunnel to protect Calgary from flooding, which would have cost up to $500 million, was put aside in favour of the Springbank dry dam proposal and heightening the gates at the Glenmore Reservoir. (Canadian Press)

Many Calgarians didn't see the damage first-hand, he said, so wouldn't appreciate what an "existential event it was."

"After four years you would think there would be more substantive things and obvious protection, but these are larger projects so they require a process, and a lot of input and work. We do know that work is underway," said Morris.

Two people look onto a flooded area.
Calgarians look out over a flooded Calgary Stampede grounds and Saddledome is late June 2013. The city is now looking at options to mitigate flood damage along rivers that flow within the city. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)
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