Making room for the river

0 November 19, 2015 at 11:12 am by

IM001150.JPGAfter the water receded, things settled down and Alberta politicians began the task of looking at how to prevent a repeat of the 2013 floods, one of the policy tools to emerge was use of voluntary buyouts for those located in the floodway.

But according to one media report, less than 100 of nearly 300 eligible homeowners accepted offers from the province to sell their homes. According to the Calgary Sun, 96 buyouts totalled $92.9 million — including 17 properties in Calgary totalling $48.8 million. Those who opted to stay received a one-time payment to make repairs, but will be barred from applying for provincial disaster assistance going forward.

The voluntary nature of the buyouts prompted immediate criticism from several corners that such a program needed to be mandatory if there was any hope of it being effective. Mandatory buyouts, it was pointed out, were used in parts of Long Branch and Etobicoke in the Toronto area after Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The expropriations saw the removal of 192 flood prone homes in Long Branch and a smaller number in Etobicoke, totalling more than 200 properties. And while few (if any) homeowners were pleased with the compensation they received, there was absolutely no chance they would ever again have to face the same carnage and personal danger they experienced from the October 1954 deluge. Because such policies were put into place after Hazel, Southern Ontario is seen as one of the leaders in flood management in Canada.

Don Barnett, Mayor of Rapid City, South Dakota, a city ravaged by severe flooding in 1972 that took 272 lives and injured 3,057 others, is ardent about getting people and assets out of the floodway and using mandatory buyouts as a means of doing so. His impassioned speech delivered at the Inland Waters Directorate, Ontario Region, Environment Canada in September 1976 is a must-read for anyone whose job is related – even distantly – to flood management and public safety and every bit of it holds value to this day.

But according to Alberta Party leader Greg Clark, whose Calgary-Elbow riding was one of the hardest hit during the 2013 flood, the buyout program was a worse disaster than the flood itself. “It’s one of the worst policies I’ve ever seen,” he told the Calgary Sun. “It cost $100 million-plus and achieved nothing. It was a waste of money.”

Clark told The Sun that the biggest problem was that the program was optional. “You’ve got two houses that take the buyout, two that don’t, then three that do and 10 that don’t, so the floodway is not clear,” he said. “There’s still houses [sic] in the floodway. Rather than buyout homeowners, Clark said the money should have gone toward upstream mitigation. “We need to unwind this policy, we need to build upstream flood mitigation and then we need to look at re-selling those properties back into the neighbourhood because once mitigation is in place, they’re no longer in the floodway.”

It appears that Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi may share a similar view. Nenshi, it was reported November  10, has asked the province to put a hold on plans to demolish 17 flood-prone homes in Calgary and now the plan is under review. The thinking is that now that the province gave the go-ahead in October to construct a large dry dam project at Springbank that is intended to control downstream flooding on the Elbow River, the 17 homes are no longer in peril. If the homes are deemed not to be significantly damaged, they may be put back on the market. If they are too flood affected to resell, they will be razed and the lots put on the market for resale.

According to Nenshi in the Calgary Herald, “The real question is not about whether they [the 17 homes] will be demolished. The real question is what happens to that land later. Right after the flood, the thought there was that there would never be development again on those lands. I think that has really shifted.”

However, there may be problems with the theory that the existence of upstream mitigation will make the floodway downstream of Springbank somehow disappear or be rendered completely risk-free.

The reality is that regardless of whether flood defence is in place or not, a home once in the floodway is always in the floodway. One of the issues is that flood defences can either be overwhelmed by an event that exceeds design or can be damaged or poorly maintained and fail. (Indeed, flood defences are often not included in flood zone maps because detailed information on the age, type and condition of the flood defence asset is often not available, so flood zone mappers often err on the side of caution.)

There is also an issue with Clark’s statement in The Sun that “the rationale [to move residents out of the floodway] was not to make sure people aren’t impacted next time, the rationale was, give a place for the water to go.”

However, the point of moving people out of the floodway was about both ensuring that they aren’t impacted ‘next time’ and giving the water a place to go. This is precisely why many who work in the hydrology field live by the professional maxim ‘‘Keep people away from water, not water away from people.’ (This is, by the way, not a new practice in Canada. We have been working to keep people out of floodways for several decades, particularly with new development. Buying homeowners out to get them out of the floodway would simply be an extension of this practice.)

Learning from past events is key to ensuring that should a like event happen again, like mistakes aren’t repeated. This includes learning from both the direct impacts caused by the events themselves, as well as the impacts of problematic public policies meant to better manage – and reduce the impact of – such events in the future.

Flood experts from around the globe – including the Netherlands – know through decades of practice that one of the reliable standby policy mechanisms that can be used to prevent future flood damage  and loss of life is to get people and assets out of the floodway – regardless of whether flood defence is planned or not – and keep them out.

The logic of buying people out to get them out of the floodway is sound public policy. Making such buyouts voluntary, perhaps not so much.

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