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Calgary flood: The 10-year journey to improve flood resilience

10-years on the city has undertaken 35 major infrastructure projects to protect the city, but more is yet to come to protect Calgary from another major flood.

More than 80,000 people fled their homes in 26 Calgary communities back in 2023 when flood waters barrelled into the city.

Billions in damage was done to city infrastructure – transit lines, buildings, bridges and electrical power all succumbing to one degree or another to the raging floodwaters.

Ten years later, the City of Calgary is looking back on the investments made prior to the flood and since to stave off another potential disaster.

Mayor Jyoti Gondek, Calgary Emergency Management Agency Chief Sue Henry and Frank Frigo with the City’s Environmental Management and Climate Resilience marked the 10th anniversary looking back at work done, but also the work that still lies ahead.

Mayor Gondek said that Calgary is now 50 per cent more flood resilient than we were in 2013.  She listed a host of flood mitigation projects – Glenmore reservoir gates, Sunnyside flood barrier, the downtown flood barrier – that garnered more than $1 billion in federal and provincial investments to protect the city.

Of course, she mentioned the resilience of Calgarians.

“As we reflect on the flood in 2013, I am most encouraged that we were not defined by what happened to us,” she said.

“Rather we have been defined by our collaborative response and immediate actions towards mitigation. Calgarians responded in 2013 by joining forces to get through the disaster together.”

One thing the mayor and Chief Henry both pointed to as a critical piece of infrastructure actually opened nine months prior to the flood. That’s the Emergency Operations Centre.

Henry said it helped manage flood response among the 60 agency members they brought together.

“Without that, it would have been very difficult to make sure that we were working towards common priorities and objectives and make sure that we were communicating to the residents,” she said.

That building was the foresight of a council 15 years prior, and finally opened in 2012, the mayor said.

“It’s really that ability to bring people together in one space to have a common conversation and be able to weigh in on what needs to be done at that moment in time that makes that center so valuable,” Mayor Gondek said.

Calgary’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) was key in coordinating Calgary’s flood effort in 2013. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Flood protection for years to come

Frigo said that much of what happened in those moments, as the city braced for an impending deluge, is still vividly imprinted on his mind.

“These memories continue to inspire a better understanding of how our city can live within and be resilient in a powerful, beautiful, mountain river watershed,” Frigo said.

There have been 35 major flood projects across Calgary. After the flood, a panel of 27 experts developed a series of recommendations Frigo said formed the backbone of their plan for river flood resilience.  With work underway, he said Calgary will be 70 per cent protected from the potential flood damage of 2013.

This includes a host of hard infrastructure projects, but also improvements to forecasting software and monitoring networks and the training of staff through flood response exercises.

“Effort will continue over the upcoming years as we plan for improvements to the flood barrier system through Sunnyside and Kensington,” Frigo said.

As river topography changes, and along with it the dynamics of potential flooding, Frigo said the flood infrastructure has been built to be adapted and additions can be made.

That principle was embedded in their flood management plan, he said.

“So, for instance, the barriers that have been constructed downtown, we can increase them,” he said.

“We build the base large enough that they will be structurally stable for events even larger than that 200-year service level.”

To top it off, there are more than 540 temporary actions identified in their emergency flood response plan to deal with rising water. Frigo said that involves anything from closing stormwater outfalls to things like the temporary Sunnyside berm from last year.

Those measures are reviewed annually.

Bow River catchment a key piece to flood resilience

Harnessing the Bow River is key to completing Calgary’s flood protection plan, said Frank Frigo with the Environmental Management and Climate Resilience unit at the City of Calgary. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Mayor Gondek said they continue to advocate for funding to move the Bow River Reservoir options to phase three. That would mean regulatory approvals and detailed design.

“There is still work to do and this 30 per cent that’s remaining of flood damage exposure is directly tied to mitigations along the Bow River,” she said.

Frigo said it’s a complex project; among the challenges are it involves new water storage, reservoir construction, water licensing, environmental concerns and hydroelectric power.

“The complexity of the work is a primary component as to why detailed study has been undertaken,” he said.

The Bow River has a roughly six times larger catchment than the Elbow River and is primarily from alpine sources, Frigo said.

“That alpine area does provide very rapid, very intense runoff. That means that the storage reservoirs that are in place are simply not large enough to capture and attenuate flows that are associated with major flood events like in 2013,” he said.

Frigo also said there are climate considerations as well. The City has been working with academic and research partners to chart potential future circulation models to see what the future may have in store.

“What we understand the grass now and what was embedded in our flood resilience plan was that increments of about 20 per cent over the next seven decades are what we’re expecting in the way of changes in the flood intensity for extreme floods,” Frigo said.

The mayor reflected on what’s happened over the past 10 years to take flood action.

“We have learned a great deal and we have taken action,” she said.

“I want to thank all the Calgarians who came together in 2013 to help each other through this and everyone who is remembering this date 10 years later. Thank you for sticking together and knowing that we will get better and stronger.”