Former premier Jim Prentice called it a fail-safe project to prevent future flooding in Calgary. But six years and nearly half a billion dollars later, the Springbank Offstream reservoir project SR-1 hasn't been built.
Not long after massive flooding in 2013, the Southern Alberta Flood Recovery Task Force suggested a number of mitigation projects for Calgary and the surrounding area, including dams at McLean Creek and Springbank. The Alberta government considers the Springbank SR-1 reservoir to be the better option over McLean Creek, claiming it is more environmentally friendly, will cost less, and will take less time to build.
One of the main goals of the project is to divert potential flood water from the Elbow River. The Government of Alberta website explains that the dam “would have a storage capacity of 70.2 million cubic metres or about 28,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.” This is far greater than the 10 million cubic meter capacity of the Glenmore Reservoir.
As of 2019 the federal government has committed $168.5 million for the project. Rachel Notley’s NDP government pledged $264 million to SR-1 in October of 2015. If built, the total cost of the dam would be $432 million.
SR-1 would require a total of 3,870 acres of land and it will take a total of three years to build, but will have some functionality by the end of year two.
“If you've got a lovely acreage or a lovely piece of land that's been in your family for generations, and suddenly you're told that for the good of the City of Calgary, there's the potential that you're now going to be a floodplain and we're gonna put you underwater...you could see why people [oppose it]”
- David Smith
While there are many organizations that oppose the project, SR-1 has received support from organizations such as the Calgary River Communities Action Group (CRCAG).
“Our interest is in protecting the city. We know that upstream mitigation is the cheapest and most effective,” says Tony Morris co-president of CRCAG.
David Smith, whose company Alberta Fire and Flood did much of the relief work for the city in 2013, says that while he believes SR-1 is the best option, he also understands why there is opposition to it.
“If you've got a lovely acreage or a lovely piece of land that's been in your family for generations, and suddenly you're told that for the good of the City of Calgary, there's the potential that you're now going to be a floodplain and we're gonna put you underwater...you could see why people [oppose it],” says Smith.
According to Morris however, the benefits far outweigh the negative impacts.
“There are five properties that would be impacted at full capacity of the dam. If you look at it on those terms, compared to the thousands of buildings that were impacted [in 2013], it’s just not a comparable impact,” he says.
The biggest opposition comes from the Springbank community association. President Karen Hunter believes that the project is outdated and can negatively impact the ecosystem of wild animals, and impact other rural areas of Alberta.
Springbank county stands to lose upwards of 1,600 acres or more of land over its life while Kamp Kiwanis, which provides summer camps and other activities throughout the year for unprivileged children, could potentially lose up to one third of their property, however they declined to comment on the project.
The offstream reservoir is predicted to be an eight story high dam, looking over a four kilometer wide plot of land in central Springbank. An additional four kilometer diversion channel will run 25 meters deep to take water from the Elbow River only three kilometers away from the main road and schools of the county. Only in the event of another major flood is that space expected to be filled with water, but for the majority of time it will be left unused and empty.
WATER MANAGEMENT AND ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS
In the event the reservoir fills with water that is redirected from the Elbow River, residents say it will negatively impact the Springbank community. When the water recedes and leaves behind bacteria, silt and impurities, that could be carried into the Springbank community by westerly wind.
“Springbank is effectively a big tailings pond,” says Hunter. “Everything will come down the river, settle in Springbank and that water, whatever is left of it, warm, contaminated, low oxygen, high sediment, will go right back into the Elbow River.”
Kim Sturgess, CEO of Alberta Water Portal, contemplates the effectiveness of the project, "I mean, you look at where it is, and this is not a negative comment, it's not designed for that...The location is downstream of all the other communities that were impacted by the floods."
Sturgess outlines that the purpose of this was to collect water from the mountains in detention sites that could capture the most water in the event of a flood.
CRCAG Co-president Brenda Leeds Binder moderating the speaker panel at the 2019 Annual General Meeting. She stands in front of 12 bankers boxes demonstrating the volume that would be needed to store all SR1-related research done to date. Photo courtesy of CRCAG
Another aspect critics say that the SR-1 project fails to accommodate is the use of flood water in other aspects like drinking, recreational use and fire mitigation among other practical uses in Calgary and Alberta.
“We all lose from this project, the city of Calgary and their water treatment loses,” says Hunter. “They might say that they win on floods, but they lose on water management because they need clean drinking water from the Elbow River, and Springbank is useless.”
The critics' third argument is that a massive flood will affect wildlife and the ecology of not only Springbank, but also the Elbow River. Accumulation of water in the reservoir will create a high silt, low oxygen environment and contaminated water system that will affect the marine and wildlife of the rural Alberta area.
Almost 4,000 acres will be dedicated to the reservoir area and in the event of a major flood, it is expected to fill in 24 to 36 hours. This will trigger what Hunter calls a “mass mortality of whatever lives in the reservoir,” including insects who pollinate the area, 200 elk, cougars, and aquatic mammals.
Hunter says that there has been no research done by the government to predict the expected mortality and stress level of fish that will live in the reservoir. This could lead to hundreds and possibly thousands of fish native to Alberta like the Bull Trout dying.
POTENTIAL DAMAGE TO RURAL AREAS
Finally, Bragg Creek and Redwood Meadows are not going to be protected by the off-stream reservoir in the event of a major flood. These areas around Springbank were devastated during the 2013 floods.
It is proposed that berms would be used to protect those areas, but according to Hunter, costs of developing them have increased from $9 million to around $40 million.
“So what you’re getting is people in Bragg Creek and Redwood Meadows saying ‘wait a second, you’re giving us berms? Well, berms fail,” says Hunter.
IS SR-1 THE ONLY FLOOD MITIGATION HOPE?
CRCAG believes that if the SpringBank project was stopped it would be hard to get any protection along the Elbow River.
“It’s critically important that we get something done. Our greatest fear is that at the end of the day nothing will get done. And we’ve made this point time and time again, that if for whatever reason the government were to stop SR-1 now, we are absolutely convinced that no mitigation would happen on the Elbow at all,” says Morris.
“We just don’t see that any other project would be pursued.”
More information on the Springbank dam project is available at this site. https://dgonz439.wixsite.com/springbank/project-sr-1
- By Sajan Jabbal, Bill Atwood, and Daniel Gonzalez