Rocky View County council voted unanimously on Tuesday to request the Alberta government to halt work on the contentious Springbank dam project, saying it could not approve the plan in its current stage.
The dam is one of several municipal and provincial flood mitigation projects put forward in the wake of the 2013 floods that devastated the City of Calgary and a number of surrounding towns and communities.
It would be located about 15 kilometres west of Calgary near Springbank Road, north of the Elbow River. In the event of a flood, the dam would temporarily store up to 70.2 million cubic metres of water.
Since the provincial project was proposed, it’s been plagued with delays and met with mounting protest, with many saying there hasn’t been enough consultation with stakeholders or independent review. In April 2016, landowners that comprised the group Don’t Dam Springbank claimed the public was being misled about the project.
Rocky View County Reeve Greg Boehlke said Tuesday the county isn’t looking to downplay the need for flood mitigation, but questioned whether this project was the right one to achieve that goal.
He said there appears to be more politics than common sense factoring into the decisions surrounding the dry dam project, adding officials need to do what’s best for ratepayers.
“When you’re spending half a billion dollars, you better be doing it right,” he said. “Not just to get something done so we can say, ‘Look we got a project done.'”
Vote points to ‘political games’
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi called the county’s move “beyond irresponsible” and said that by having the vote so late in the game, the council was playing “political games.”
He added some of what’s been said by the county is untrue, arguing primarily that parties have engaged in extensive community and public consultation over the past five years, as well as sought independent scientific studies that proved the dam is “the right choice.”
“The reeve says this was sprung on them, no other alternatives were looked at and that there is no benefit to the county,” Nenshi said. “All of those things are just not false, they’re actually deeply offensive.”
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Calgary-Elbow MLA Greg Clark agreed with Nenshi that the dam is the “right project.”
“It always has been and I am frustrated the regulatory process doesn’t seem to be designed to build things,” he said, citing the slow pipeline process as an example. “It seems to be designed to allow people to simply oppose things and we’re never going to build anything in this country ever again.”
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Nenshi also said that officials are currently working toward completing flood mitigation projects on the Bow River with the aim of protecting a large portion of southern Alberta and that revisiting the previously-approved Springbank dam is a move backwards. He said everyone in the region relies on a healthy Calgary economy and a healthy downtown for their livelihoods.
“In all due respect, Calgary has their ratepayers and we have ours and we are standing up for ours,” Boehlke said.
“Whether we are in favour or not isn’t going to make a difference whether this goes ahead or not,” he added. “It’s taking a stand and hopefully, this generates more conversation and more investigation into good options that are out there.”
Landowner Lee Drewry called the project a threat to land that’s been in his wife’s family since the 1800s.
“The province landed before considering all alternatives and picked the wrong project,” he said. “It really bothers me that we’ve gotten this far and if we’d worked together, we could have landed on a better alternative and had it half done by now.”
Instead, he said an ideal alternative is building a dry dam in McLean Creek, which would be built on Crown land and provide flood protection not only to Calgary, but also to Bragg Creek and Redwood Meadows.
Clark said that option would be “near impossible in this current regulatory climate.” He said it would mean flooding hundreds of acres of provincial forest — possibly endangering grizzly bears — as well as a stream with strong ties to Indigenous traditions that is home to species of endangered fish and flowers.
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In a statement from the chief of the Tsuut’ina First Nation, which has also been opposed to the project, Lee Crowchild thanked the reeve for taking a strong position.
“The proposed Springbank dry dam is a simply massive project, with immense implications for groundwater, air and the health of the river,” Crowchild said. “While flood mitigation for Calgary is absolutely necessary, there are alternatives and those should be carefully explored before we build.”
Boehlke said the county looks forward to continuing to work with Calgary towards a common goal of mitigating flooding and potential damages if another major flood event were to occur.
“If you are talking about the good in Calgary, it’s talking about the good of the region,” he said.
Nenshi said Tuesday’s decision points to the county not wanting to be a good regional player and said he’ll need to see good faith on its part before he spends a lot of time and money on future negotiations.