Berms and sandbags: Fort McMurray spending millions in preparation for flood season

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is spending millions of dollars to protect Fort McMurray and surrounding communities from potential flooding this spring.

'I really believe that a lot has been done,' says Mayor Don Scott

The municipality installed triple dams around Longboat Landing in Fort McMurray. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Regional officials in Fort McMurray have spent $10 million to better protect the community from potential spring flooding after a deluge of melting river ice triggered historic flooding in the community last year.

In late April, a 25-kilometre-long ice jam formed in the Athabasca River, flooding the northern Alberta city's downtown and surrounding areas, and forcing 13,000 people from their homes.

An independent engineering report later found the flood mitigation system in the community was incomplete and seriously flawed. A porous berm system allowed water to gush into the community.

Water passed over parts of berms that were too low to withstand a one-in-100-year flood, pouring into downtown through culverts and vents that run through the berms, causing more than $520 million in insured damage. 

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo held a virtual town hall Thursday to hear from residents ahead of this year's river break-up. Each year, when the ice in nearby rivers begins to melt, low-lying areas of the community are especially vulnerable to flooding.

River break-up hasn't started yet, Jason Penner, communications adviser for Alberta Environment and Parks, said in an email Friday.

While there is always a potential for ice-jam flooding, the province's river forecast centre sees no factors that significantly increase the risk or severity of ice jams in Fort McMurray this spring, Penner said.

As temperatures wam up, the river forecast centre will closely monitor the Pembina and Athabasca rivers, he said.

The snowpack this year was average, he added.

Wood Buffalo will have 100 staff and contractors on standby and ready to respond if there is flooding this year, Mayor Don Scott said Thursday during a virtual town hall. 

Free sandbags are being distributed to residents concerned about the potential for flooding on their properties.

During Thursday's town hall, residents asked how the municipality has adjusted flood-mitigation efforts to protect the community against another flooding disaster.

Scott said Wood Buffalo is now better prepared, with new permanent and temporary flood-mitigation infrastructure and improved emergency response protocols. 

"The issue that happened last year should never happen again to this community and I think that the measures we are taking are going to be a strong step in that direction," he said. 

Drone shots of the Fort McMurray flooding captured on April 30, 2020. (Submitted by Byron Bourget)

The municipality has spent $10 million on mitigation, including building clay berms and installing temporary inflatable dams. It is still building permanent flood mitigation infrastructure. 

The berms for Taiga Nova and Longboat Landing are scheduled to be completed this year. Berms for downtown and Waterways are scheduled for 2022. 

He said one-third of the temporary flood mitigation funding is going toward underground work, including the installation of pumps, plugs and water-tight manhole covers. 

"There's a lot to be done for permanent mitigation, but we have a team that's very committed to that," Scott said. "I really believe that a lot has been done and will be done going forward."

'More nimble' evacuation plan

The town hall heard concerns about evacuation alerts. Some residents said they weren't given enough time last year to pack up and leave or protect their homes.

Emergency management director Scott Davis said residents should download the Alertable app.

During last year's flood there were delays getting alerts out through the provincial system, Davis said. 

One lesson from 2020 was the need to get "timely, concise alerts to residents," he added. Davis said the new app will allow the municipality to alert residents to changes in flooding more quickly. 

"We're able to be much more nimble, quick, send out that messaging without any delays going through the province."

Bombing ice too dangerous

Some residents also questioned the municipality's plans for proactive mitigation, such as bombing potential ice jams or dredging the river. 

Matthew Hough, the municipality's deputy chief administrative officer, addressed the idea of using explosives on the ice — a suggestion that came up repeatedly during the 2020 flood. 

The option to blow up the ice could be "incredibly dangerous" and is unlikely to help, he said.

People stand on the side of the highway in Fort McMurray during the April 2020 flood. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

One resident asked about how the municipality would protect the water supply if the river rises again. 

After the 2020 flood, Fort McMurray and surrounding areas were under boil-water advisories for months. River water had breached the water treatment plant. Water flowed the wrong way down an overflow pipe, contaminating the supply. 

Elliot White, senior manager of the municipality's environmental services team, said crews have isolated all of the systems connected to the river, to prevent a similar event. Alarm systems at the plant have been upgraded, he said.

"We've also inspected and repaired key valves and key infrastructure at the water treatment plant," White said.

The municipality is using temporary dams to protect properties in the floodplain. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)


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