Springbank reservoir change of heart comes with $32M for Tsuut'ina flood mitigation

The Tsuut'ina Nation received a $32-million grant from the Alberta government in exchange for removing its opposition to the controversial Springbank off-stream reservoir project, according to new details about the deal.

Nation says 'concerns' about dam remain on the record

A artist's rendering of the off-stream reservoir project at Springbank Road. The dam lost its main opposition earlier this month when Tsuut'ina First Nation said it no longer objected. (Government of Alberta)

The Tsuut'ina Nation received a $32-million grant from the Alberta government in exchange for removing its opposition to the controversial Springbank off-stream reservoir project, according to new details about the deal.

The provincial government announced earlier this month that leaders of the First Nation had changed their position despite having protested the flood mitigation project for years. The Alberta government said this removed a significant barrier to the project, which is intended to mitigate flood risk downstream in Calgary.

At the time, the Alberta government said an agreement had been reached but declined to provide specifics.

The Tsuut'ina Nation chief and council have now published some details about that agreement — specifically, the key financial figure.

"The Tsuut'ina Nation has been able to negotiate a grant for $32 million from the province of Alberta for, among other things, flood mitigation, restoration and prevention," council said in a statement posted to Facebook on Saturday.

"In return for this grant, we have removed our opposition to the Springbank Off-Stream Reservoir (SR-1)."

CBC News reached out to the Tsuut'ina for an interview, but a spokesperson said the nation's statement would be all that would be released. When CBC asked Alberta Transportation for more information, a spokesperson declined to answer questions and sent a statement.

"We are pleased to have reached an agreement with the Tsuut'ina Nation that will provide them with flood mitigation measures, and we will continue to consult with our First Nation partners and impacted communities to address their concerns," press secretary Brooklyn Elhard said.

In the online statement, Tsuut'ina officials said they had intended to discuss the issue with nation members at a meeting but could not due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Critic questions cost, efficiency of dam

Karen Hunter of the Springbank Community Association said her group just filed a new letter to federal regulators to oppose the project.

They are worried about it in part, she said, because the water leaving the reservoir would be contaminated and filled with sediment, which could affect the Elbow River's ecosystem. She said they're also not convinced the project would accomplish the goals for the city once it grows.

"Everybody might jump around and say how successful this is going, that we have the Tsuut'ina withdrawing their opposition," Hunter said. "You know what? No one's going to win with this project."

As for the Tsuut'ina Nation decision to withdraw opposition after it raised similar concerns, Hunter said she was pleased to see the nation published the details of the agreement. She also said she believes the leaders are doing what's best for the nation, and respects their decision.

However, Hunter said she is worried about the additional cost the grant adds to the Springbank project. 

"The cost continues to increase. The government will stop at nothing, apparently, to appease downtown Calgary, and unfortunately our view is still that this is the worst outcome," Hunter said.

Hunter and others support a past proposal to build a dam at McLean Creek, instead. Advocates for that location have said it would have a lower environmental impact and be farther away from the nation's land.

'Concerns' stay on the record

Tsuut'ina officials said that despite no longer opposing the project, their "concerns" about it remain on the record. They noted the dam needs environmental approval before going ahead, and said the grant was not tied to the project passing federal approval.

If approved by federal regulators, the reservoir may cover more than 3,500 acres (1,416 hectares) of land in the Springbank area west of Calgary, near the lands of Tsuut'ina Nation.

The project would allow water from the Elbow River to be diverted temporarily into the reservoir, where it would be stored and only allowed to flow back into the Elbow River and toward Calgary when the flood risk subsides.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he hadn't heard the details of the deal until asked to comment by CBC News. He said he views the project as "absolutely essential."

"I'll say to the province of Alberta, you know what, thank you for doing everything you can to clear whatever barriers remain in the way to get that built," Nenshi said. 

The mayor then said the environmental assessment was "very late," and he called on the Government of Canada to finish it quickly.

Members of the Tsuut'ina First Nation and local ranchers and landowners joined together for a Unity Ride along the Elbow River to protest the Springbank dry dam. This is a file photo. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Tsuut'ina Nation leaders previously said they were concerned over a lack of consultation, and the potential effect to land and water in the area.

The change in position, the current leaders said in the statement, was made without giving up inherent and treaty rights, and the right to water.

Tsuut'ina Chief Roy Whitney was quoted in the original announcement as saying the agreement provided protection and ability to mitigate the impact of flooding.

"Our primary concern has always been the protection of our people and our land," Whitney said.

With files from Scott Dippel