The future of the Springbank Off-Stream Reservoir (SR1) is down to the wire, with a public hearing currently taking place to debate the potential social, environmental and economic impacts of the $432-million project.
A virtual public hearing hosted by the Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) regarding SR1 began on March 22. The hearing, which includes six parties and Alberta Transportation, is expected to conclude on April 5 but can be extended to April 12 if needed.
The public hearing will discuss the need for SR1, crown consultation and land use, the design of the reservoir, the safety of the project, its impact on air quality, human health and the environment.
The application to the NRCB includes an environmental impact assessment prepared by Alberta Transportation.
Matthew Hebert, the executive director of the dry-dam project for Alberta Transportation, served as the lead policy witness on behalf of the government body, which is hoping the NRCB will find SR1 to be in the public interest of Albertans and issue an approval for construction.
The public hearing began with Alberta Transportation presenting direct evidence in support of the project.
“The reason we are before you today with this project is in direct response to the massive flooding in 2013 in Southern Alberta and the city of Calgary, which resulted in significant economic and personal costs for the province and its citizens,” Hebert said.
More than $5 billion in damages and five people died in the wake of the extraordinary flooding, he added. In Calgary, 88,000 people were displaced from their homes, 14,500 homes were damaged, 3,000 other buildings flooded and 4,000 businesses were damaged due to the Bow and Elbow Rivers flooding.
Bragg Creek and Redwood Meadows were also severely affected by the flooding. It is projected around $1.5 billion in damages could occur on the Elbow River if a flood of the same magnitude as 2013 was to occur.
The proposed reservoir will work in tandem with the Glenmore Reservoir in Calgary to accommodate water levels that match the 2013 flood. The ultimate goal of the project is to protect as many communities as possible downstream from the reservoir, Hebert said.
“It was a terrible event that will always be remembered by those who lived through it,” he said. “The government recognized that it had to take timely action to prevent that catastrophic event from reoccurring.”
History has shown a flood of some magnitude on the Elbow River is expected to occur every eight to 10 years, Hebert said.
SR1 was selected as the preferred option for flood mitigation based on its environmental, economic and technical factors. Stakeholders have also been consulted, Hebert said, and concerns have been expressed by local landowners and residents of the Springbank area. Alberta Transportation is proposing the reservoir be built 15 kilometres west of Calgary.
“A number of them told us we picked the wrong project and asked us to reconsider other options like an in-stream dam on the Elbow River at McLean Creek,” Hebert said.
Despite these concerns, the decision to select SR1 has been revised and upheld by two different provincial governments, most recently in 2019.
Alberta Transportation is the proponent of the project and will seek the necessary approvals and the construction of SR1. When the reservoir is complete, Alberta Environment and Parks will assume control of the reservoir.
“Transportation remains confident that the Springbank Off-Stream Reservoir project is the best suited to provide timely, reliable and effective flood mitigation on the Elbow River to Southern Alberta, the City of Calgary and other downstream communities,” Hebert said. “SR1 is the right project to deliver flood mitigation on the Elbow River.”
He noted SR1 is the best option for the region because as an off-stream reservoir, it would be less sensitive to impact from sentiment and debris, would capture more floodwater due to its location downstream, would be closer to operation response teams and access roads, would have less environmental impact, less impact on the Elbow River, be less vulnerable to extreme weather, have less impact on social and recreation values, have a positive economic impact and have less impact on tourism.
The reservoir is designed to mitigate a flood the size of 2013 and is expected to cost $432 million to construct.
Alberta Transportation has secured about 25 per cent of the lands in the project area through voluntary purchases. They are also in process of finalizing deals with three landowners in the area, which will increase land secured to 43 per cent.
Douglas Rae of Rae and Company was on hand for the hearing representing the Stoney Nakoda First Nation and the Wesley, Bearspaw and Chiniki bands. Three of the Nations reserves are in close vicinity to the proposed SR1 project and have rights and interests on reserve lands and as Indigenous people, Rae said.
“I think the evidence will show that the Springbank project is not a stand-alone project,” Rae said. “The purported benefits of the Springbank dam will only be realized if there is also an upstream dam on the Bow River.”
He argued there are doubts about the public interest of SR1, especially in Stoney Nakoda, where it would not result in any meaningful protection for the area.
He noted the Stoney Nakoda was not included in consultations regarding the reservoir. None of the Stoney Nakoda reserves are along the Elbow River.
Stoney Nakoda First Nation appreciates the support they received from the province in 2013, but said it is clear large portions of the reserve will be flooded on the Bow River. Rae asked why this has not been funded by the Province to understand the impacts of the flooding in the area.
Rae argued the Stoney Nakoda has both treaty and Aboriginal rights in the area that need to be acknowledged during the creation of SR1.
SR1 will benefit solely the City of Calgary, especially in terms of drought management for the Bow River basin water control proposals, he said, and questioned if the evidence for the City of Calgary had pushed the idea that SR1 is a sound investment.
Hebert noted the selection of the Bow River dam is at a conceptual stage and three proposed areas are in discussion. These projects will be screened to understand their impacts before being selected, this falls under the responsibility of Environment and Parks.
Several First Nations have also expressed concerns about the project.
The TsuuT'ina Nation ended its opposition of the proposed reservoir in 2020 because it secured a $32-million grant from the Alberta government for flood mitigation, restoration and prevention.
Two others – the Ermineskin Cree Nation and the Blood Tribe/Kainai – have also withdrawn from the review.
Stoney Nakoda First Nation, the Springbank Concerned Landowners Group, the Calgary River Communities Action Group and the City of Calgary all have standing at the hearing.
When the hearing is concluded, the NRCB will issue a decision report to approve or deny SR1 within 80 working days. As part of the report, the board will determine if SR1’s social, economic and environmental effects.
The public hearing is available to watch and a YouTube link is available at nrcb.ca
—With files from the Canadian Press