Edmonton

'It was definitely disappointing': Provincial review ties up promised flood mitigation dollars

Flood mitigation funding promised by the NDP is on hold, pending review by the UCP government.

Previous government had earmarked $43M for 14 communities

The town of Westlock is still recovering from a major flood in 2016. (Kelsey Stasiuk)

More than $43 million in promised grant funding for flood mitigation in Alberta municipalities is on hold, pending a review by the provincial government. 

Several days before calling the election in March, the previous NDP government announced 14 municipalities would be recipients of the Alberta Community Resilience Program, an annual grant program that helps municipalities with infrastructure projects to protect against floods and drought. 

The province did not provide a timeline for completing the review.

Westlock, a town about 90 kilometres north of Edmonton, was awarded just over $1 million to help build trenching and a new stormwater pond. 

The project went out to tender, but Westlock's interim chief administrative officer Simone Wiley said Friday the town won't know if the money is coming or not until after the provincial government finishes reviewing the program.

Sobeys owners Tom and Susan Vesely closed the store, then took their display canoe for a ride following a flood in the streets of Westlock, Alta. in 2016. (Supplied)

"It was definitely disappointing news because you get the grant announcement, and you go 'Oh great, this is fantastic we're able to go ahead,'" Wiley said. "As a small community, $3.3 million is a large project for us that we just don't have the capacity to take on that kind of a project without some grant dollars attached to it."

A flood swept through the town in 2016, damaging homes, businesses and public infrastructure. Wiley said total costs aren't finalized, but she estimates the bill for fixing up town infrastructure is around $1 million.

To help prevent another devastating flood, Westlock was counting on help from other levels of government to construct a drainage system with the capacity to handle big weather events.

The estimated $3.3 million project, which is supposed to give the community the capacity to handle big weather events, is the top priority in Westlock's updated stormwater master plan, Wiley said.

Without the provincial grant as a sure thing, Wiley said the town also can't access federal infrastructure dollars needed to complete the project.

Other communities' grants were set to help offset the cost of even larger scale projects: Edmonton was to get $5 million, for the flood mitigation work at the Rossdale and E.L. Smith water treatment plants; Calgary was awarded $15 million for two projects and more than $6.5 million was earmarked for a flood prevention berm to protect the lower townsite of Fort McMurray.

News that the grant program is under review did not come as a surprise to Alberta Urban Municipality Association (AUMA) president Barry Morishita.

"We did understand, after the UCP came to power, that they would be reviewing all of the grant announcements made pre-writ by the previous government," he said.

Morishita said that while the AUMA will be holding the province to its assurance that the reviews be completed as quickly as possible, in the long term he hopes a more stable funding arrangement for projects like flood mitigation can replace the use of grants. 

Though the previous government struck an infrastructure funding deal with Edmonton and Calgary, the rest of the province's municipalities remain without an agreement.

Morishita said the province has indicated to AUMA that further discussions about a deal will have to wait.

The NDP announced the $43 million funding only seven days prior to calling the election, minister of Environment and Parks press secretary Jess Sinclair noted in an email Friday. 

"Alberta's new government made a clear commitment during the provincial election to review all of the spending commitments made by the previous administration during the legal campaign period, which began on February 1, 2019," Sinclair wrote. 

While Westlock waits for the outcome of the review, Wiley said the town sent a briefing note to their MLA about the stormwater project. She said they are hoping to hear good news soon. 

"It feels like it's just a matter of time at this point. It hasn't been cancelled, so that's optimistic — it's just on hold at this point," she said.

About the Author

Paige Parsons is an Edmonton-based reporter and web editor. She can be reached at paige.parsons@cbc.ca.

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