The Political Dilemma

I attended an information session regarding the Springbank Dry Reservoir project August 17th, one of many as I have followed this project since it’s announcement in the spring of 2015.

A brief backgrounder; this project was announced shortly before the 2015 election by the Prentice government, it smacked of political pandering to the voters living along the city portion of the Elbow River, a quick fix to any future flooding event, shovel ready was a term used quite often. The project would involve diverting the Elbow River just before it crosses highway 22, north of the traffic circle. A diversionary canal would be built for a kilometer or so and it would then be directed under the highway and into a large (by large, to put it into perspective, it is 27.5 sq. km) dry reservoir surrounded on two sides by permanent berms and a gate system that would be opened post-flood to allow for a controlled drainage back into the Elbow River further downstream. The original proposals and information events painted a very straightforward, well thought out option versus the Maclean Creek option which would involve federal approval processes that would hold back the project for many years. Again, there was a lot of emphasis on the speed at which this project could be accomplished. Anxious inner city residents, traumatized by the last flood, eager to see a solution in place. Groups organized to support and promote their views, Calgary River Communities Action Group, Don’t Damn Springbank Group, the Maclean Creek group, Room for the River, all attempting to bring their views into focus.

I live in Springbank and during my GPC bid, this issue was of concern to me personally but also as it affected the Tsuu T’ina lands, it fell into federal jurisdiction. Provincially this project affects my future constituency. As a potential party leader, I have not only to protect the local interests of my riding but all Albertans affected by this decision. A point made clear as I stood by a group of people talking with Greg Clark as he assured them that he was fully supportive of the project and would work diligently to expedite its implementation. He added in his remarks that as the future Premier of Alberta he would champion these efforts even further. It was at this point, I stepped into the discussion and introduced myself. I laughed and said maybe I might be the future premier and the location of this project affects my constituents. This would have been a great opportunity to discuss the two sides of this issue and how, as politicians we promise to include all Albertans and to make sustainable choices, respect the spending of our public funds etc., alas Mr. Clark found his way out of the group and I was left to hear what these residents felt and answer their questions.

Before I arrived at this junction of the evening, I went to ask about whether the land costing had been properly addressed. In previous iterations of this information, the land values were woefully inaccurate, thus skewing the project costs numbers to appear much more economical then they actually would be. I checked into the status of the environmental investigations as well. I spoke with representatives of our First Nations people. I was then asked to give my thoughts to one of the communication staff assigned to gather feedback from attendees. I was very happy to do so. After I handed her my card by way of introduction, I prefaced my statements with my belief that our government and the people involved in this project are doing their best, I harbor no ill will towards them. I also let her know that I have been involved with the landowners whose land will be ground zero for the reservoir.

I spoke of the costs, the engineering concerns, the environmental concerns. I questioned why the bridge over the Elbow for the ring road has had to have an 11th hour stay to address the concerns of stakeholders and the wetlands that are going to be adversely affected and hopes that this project would not encounter the same issues. I voiced my concerns that the Tsuu T’ina nation be given their full voice in this decision. I reminded her (the project) that it is on Treaty 7 land and we are to be thankful that our First Nations neighbors were so generous in the use of their land. I hoped that at this moment in Canadian history, we truly intend to make reconciliation a priority and act upon it, not just in words but in deeds. I reflected upon how resilient, generous, humorous and kind our Indigenous neighbors are. I also commented upon the events in Charlottesville and the shared roots in Canada in how we treated these communities. I concluded by hoping that all the people involved in this project would be able to stand up at the end of the day and say with integrity and truth in their heart that this project will be the best it can be for all involved.

Back to the group of residents whose homes were affected by the flooding in the city. One person asked me if I was in favour of this solution or not. I told her that I am concerned that the solution to this problem requires a more layered and complicated answer than this one project will achieve. She clearly wanted this project to be approved and started as quickly as possible, her house value had been affected and she was at the stage in her life that retirement funds are in the equity of her home, absolutely understandable. Concerns about PTSD were raised as they were in High River. I asked them how did they account for the risk in buying a home in a floodplain? One said the city/province should have informed her of this as the houses had been built in this area for over 100 years. Complaints about lack of insurance for overland flood was raised, albeit this is available, but at a premium. I asked about the houses that were torn down along the rivers edge and should they be rebuilt? The consensus was yes as soon as flood protection was in place. They voiced a degree of concern for the land required for this project being lived on by homeowners such as themselves but the few outweighed the many. A false equivalency was given by saying it was 19 people vs. 1 million, the actual number of affected Calgarians was approximately 75,000 in the city, this included the Bow River flooding as well.

This brings me to the politician’s dilemma; a problem needs a solution. This particular problem crosses into so many areas of concern;

  • Are we able, as a government, to protect all our citizens equally?
  • This project only deals with the flooding on the Elbow River, leaving the existing problems on the Bow unaddressed, let alone flooding issues across many communities in the entire province.
  • Costs in this case currently expected to be $432 million. How much debt/tax increase is reasonable?
  • Taking the time to do a comprehensive study into all viable options as this is protecting for a 1 in a 100 year event, not an annual event.
  • The environmental costs have not been included in this estimate as it is difficult to put a number on it, so who will be willing to pay for this?
  • Are we willing to set aside money for the future costs of climate change that will only exacerbate these issues going forward?
  • Shall we limit development in flood plains unless flood mitigation is part of the design?
  • Just because houses were built in these areas for decades, should we not take these opportunities to adjust our use of lands next to rivers to make them public and allow for the river to be a natural force?
  • Is political expediency a valid argument?

Speaking with the attendees, their points of view are based fully on their own interests, we as politicians must include all the public interest. Not just our constituents, nor just our party’s interests. We also need to be truthful in our conversations and information we relay to the public, there is a very significant need for trust.