Calgary

Proposed Springbank reservoir faces renewed, invigorated opposition

As the sixth anniversary of the devastating June 2013 floods in Calgary and southern Alberta approaches, the proposed Springbank reservoir is likely months away its fate being decided — and the government says it cannot commit to a project that hasn't been given regulatory approval.

Alberta's new transportation minister can't commit to the project because he doesn't have the authority

A rendering of what a diversion channel for the Springbank reservoir would look like. (Alberta Transportation/YouTube screenshot)

As the sixth anniversary of the devastating June 2013 floods in Calgary and southern Alberta approaches, the proposed Springbank reservoir is likely months away from its fate being decided — and the government is not prepared to commit to a project that hasn't been approved.

The former NDP government and the current federal government have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to the project, which would reduce the impact of another 2013-scale event by roughly 80 per cent. 

The UCP pledged its support for the reservoir before the April 16 election, but not all members of the governing party back the project — and even the minister responsible remains non-committal. 

The MLA for Banff-Kananaskis has asked the transportation minister to reconsider the $432-million reservoir and instead take another look at the proposed McLean Creek dam, a project that was dropped years ago.

"For me, it's about trying to get flood mitigation for everyone so that if another flood comes through, my riding isn't completely wiped out in the process," said Miranda Rosin, who was elected last month. 

And Ric McIver, who recently took over as Alberta's transportation minister, says he can't commit to the project because it hasn't been approved by provincial and federal regulatory bodies studying the reservoir's environmental impact.

"We have no authority to commit to anything until we get that authority," he said.

Alberta Transportation Minister Ric McIver says he can't commit to the $432-million Springbank reservoir project because the project is still under review by provincial and federal regulatory agencies. (UCP)

"We're committed to getting flood mitigation into place but we don't have permission to do that until the environmental assessment agencies give us that permission, and we're doing what's in our power to get that authority to get that decision," he said. 

"And that's the next step we are working on now," he said.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency continues to assess the project and is awaiting information from the province before it can finalize its draft environmental assessment report.

The two regulatory agencies have submitted nearly 600 questions for McIver's department to answer.

McIver says he's also reaching out to various stakeholders to discuss the project and listen to their concerns.

Opponents believe the change in government will give them another shot at convincing politicians to reconsider.

"It's purely a flood mitigation tool and it doesn't address drought," said Karin Hunter, president of the Springbank Community Asociation.

A depiction of where water would go when the proposed Springbank reservoir is in use as a flood-mitigation measure. Highway 22 and Springbank Road would be raised as part of the project so that they are still passable when the reservoir is full. (Alberta Transportation/YouTube screenshot)

The association says drought, water management and supply form part of their case against the Springbank reservoir, and it's pointing to recent comments from Calgary's mayor, who raised the question of whether the proposed reservoir should be converted into a year-round storage facility.

But the association says a dam at McLean Creek should be considered to help ease concerns about the future of Calgary's water supply. 

Tsuut'ina Nation is also buoyed by the change in government and is renewing its campaign against the Springbank reservoir.

Chief Lee Crowchild met with Premier Jason Kenney May 16, but the reservoir was not discussed in great detail, according to a spokesperson for the First Nation. The get together was described as a "government to government … diplomatic" meeting. 

"Items were tabled but not fully discussed," said Kevin Littlelight, a spokesperson for Tsuut'ina.

The reservoir lands would be about 400 metres north of the First Nation, but the site sits "squarely" within Tsuut'ina's traditional territory. The First Nation, which  is strongly opposed to the project, says there are too many unknowns associated with it. 

It's concerned about the impact on ground water resources, including the quantity and quality of drinking water. It also fears an increased risk of flooding on the reserve.

"Tsuut'ina is absolutely and outright against the Springbank dam being built, and if it's McLean Creek, that's the preferred option for the nation," said Littlelight.

Rocky View County also expressed its concerns about the Springbank project to the former NDP government, asking it earlier this year to halt the project. Then transportation minister Brian Mason rejected the demand saying it would be "irresponsible" to withdraw the project application "at this late stage." 

The county said the reservoir project would directly impact 87 residential homes "on or near" the reservoir, would result in the loss of nearly 1,600 hectares of "high quality ranch land" and would leave behind anywhere from 1 to 400 centimetres of silt after a flood event, which could result in air quality issues when the land is cultivated and re-seeded.

The county also says the McLean Creek and Priddis diversion projects were prematurely dismissed without a thorough technical analysis.

So far, the provincial government has acquired about 20 per cent of the 3,870 acres of land needed for the Springbank project. 

In a May 21 letter to the transportation minister, the Calgary River Communities Action Group pleaded for McIver to continue work on the Springbank reservoir "as quickly as possible."

It said mixed messages from members of the UCP caucus are "troublesome and frustrating."

"Those floods saw five people lose their lives," said Tony Morris, one of the directors with the group.

"These are fundamentally important projects to protect the lives and livelihoods and property," he said. "It's just quite remarkable that you know no stone has been turned upstream to really protect the city.

"The Springbank project has been selected through the science and the work done as the project of choice … it just needs to continue," Morris said. 

"The idea that it could ever be set aside or rethought is just completely untenable"

The city is also waiting and watching to see how the upstream flood mitigation process unfolds under the new government. 

Frank Frigo, the city's watershed analysis leader, is hoping the UCP continues to move along with the project while ensuring the proper approval process is followed.

"That, of course, means ensuring that both stakeholders and technical components are well addressed," he said.

"The City of Calgary, as a downstream licence holder and supplier of water to 1.4 million customers within and around the city of Calgary, very much do want to see due process around this project." 

McIver says flood mitigation for the city of Calgary is very important and is a high priority. He says he has no intention of "dragging his heels."  

At the same time, he would not speculate on a possible completion date.

The Calgary River Communities Action Group has suggested the earliest would be 2023 — a decade after the 2013 disaster. 

"I don't think they would actually have their feelings hurt by me saying that they don't actually know and I don't actually know because no one can know until the environmental assessment authorities give approval," McIver said.

Adding to the timeline is a promise from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to "engage with the public" prior to a final decision on the Springbank reservoir, but the agency offered no clear timeline for that process.

If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach Bryan Labby at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.

About the Author

Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.