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‘Nervous anticipation’: Flashbacks of 2013 flood in southern Alberta come every June

Every June, many Calgarians who live near the Bow and Elbow rivers start to worry.
Residents of the Sunnyside neighborhood attend a parade and party marking the 10-year anniversary of the Southern Alberta floods in Calgary, Saturday, June 17, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Every June, many Calgarians who live near the Bow and Elbow rivers start to worry.

Some watch the weather forecasts more closely. Others take a weekend drive to the Rockies, an hour west, to see what’s left of the winter snowpack high in the mountains.

They’re haunted by the days in 2013 when the rivers breached their banks, triggering floods that brought widespread devastation to city residents and businesses.

“Every year is a bit of apprehension as the anniversary of the flood comes up,” said Charlie Lund, who lives in the Sunnyside neighbourhood along the Bow River in Calgary.

This week is the 10-year anniversary of the southern Alberta floods, which left five people dead and damaged thousands of homes and businesses in June 2013. The total damage was estimated at more than $5 billion, making it one of the costliest floods in Canadian history.

Brenda Leeds Binder, who lives near the Elbow River, said a “nervous anticipation” has set in every June since 2013.

“We don’t know until the month’s over whether we’re going to have a flood this year or not because it’s really so dependent on the weather — and that’s just something that is inherently unpredictable,” she said.

One water expert said the situation in 2023 is a far cry from the devastating scenes that played out a decade ago.

“We have the lowest snowpack I’ve ever seen and perhaps the earliest, fastest snowmelt ever recorded in the Rockies,” John Pomeroy, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said in a recent interview. “We have stream flows that peaked six weeks earlier than normal that have now dropped.”

As the water leaves the mountains, it flows through rivers across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba where it’s used in cities, towns and farms.

“The flows reaching Saskatchewan are incredibly low,” said Pomeroy, who’s also a Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change.

Much of the Prairies, he said, could be relying on rainfall as the groundwater depletes.

He added, however, that floods can also depend on rain.

“2013 would have been a drought year except for three days of heavy precipitation at the end of June that caused the flood that year,” Pomeroy said. “What we don’t have right now is the mountain snowpack and that added quite a bit to the flooding in 2013.”

The 2013 flood in southern Alberta was the result of two large weather systems that merged over the Rockies, from Jasper National Park to the United States border and from the Elk Valley in B.C. to Calgary. The rain fell on a late-season snowpack, most of it in the area around Burns Creek, which provides the source water for the Highwood, Elbow and Kananaskis rivers. The Kananaskis flows into the Bow, which meets the Elbow in Calgary.

Pomeroy, who lives in Canmore, said scientists have since tried to get a better understanding of how it happened and how often major floods could happen in the future.

“We learned a lot from it,” he said.

Many research papers have been written about historic flooding, flooding and climate change, how much the snowpack contributes and the need for better monitoring and warning systems.

In Canmore and Banff, the mountain towns west of Calgary were cut off after floodwaters washed out the Trans-Canada Highway. Dozens of homes were severely damaged along a raging Cougar Creek in Canmore.

It led to a risk and hazard assessment process, a plan for mountain creeks and a plan to manage future emergencies — although some still have concerns that the town needs more protection.

The town of High River, south of Calgary, was evacuated after flooding on the Highwood River saw the water rise over vehicles and required the rescue of about 150 people from the rooftops of homes.

Mayor Craig Snodgrass said High River is in a “fantastic place” a decade after the flood.

“We’re fully rebuilt and we’ve got all our mitigation done,” he said in an interview.

About 140 homes in two communities, Beachwood and Wallaceville, were removed and those neighbourhoods have effectively gone back to nature.

Snodgrass, who saw his home and business damaged, said all the work since 2013 has meant he’s less worried every June when the annual risk of flooding comes around.

Back in Calgary, the city has also made improvements since more than 100,000 people had to flee from 26 communities, including the downtown. Officials said in a recent update that the city has reduced its flood risk by 55 per cent since 2013 and there are still projects being built to protect the city.

Residents who live along both the Bow and Elbow rivers said there’s more to do.

Leeds Binder, co-president of the Calgary River Communities Action Group, said communities along the Elbow River will be better protected with the Springbank off-stream reservoir, which is being built just outside the city and set to be completed by 2025.

But she noted the Bow River is bigger and has the potential to do more damage.

Lund, who’s the chairman of the flood committee for the Hillhurst Sunnyside Community Association, said there have been projects along the Bow, but it’s been a long process.

“They are doing the right things. I wish they had done it five years ago,” he said in an interview, days before an annual parade and party — known as Neighbour Day in communities across the city — to recognize the outpouring of support from neighbours after the 2013 floods.

The province, he noted, continues to explore options to build an upstream dam on the Bow River to reduce the effects of flooding in Calgary.

Leeds Binder said the solution would be expensive, but the consequences of the next flood would also have a massive cost.

“It’s not a question of if, it’s just a question of when,” she said.

“If we wait for another flood to come down the Bow, that could be too late for some people. It puts lives at risk in addition to all the other disruption it causes.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 18, 2023.

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press