There’s an old adage, courtesy of Benjamin Franklin, that says, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The 18th-century inventor, writer and former U.S. president, was referring to fire prevention when he wrote those words, but they are just as suitable for other situations, too, including flood prevention.
Whether or not Alberta’s NDP government had Franklin’s words in mind, the province announced Monday it will spend $297 million to build a new reservoir west of Calgary that is aimed at heading off a repeat of the flooding which caused several billion dollars in damage in June 2013.
In announcing the funding, Alberta Environment Minister and Lethbridge West MLA Shannon Phillips told a news conference, “The floods of June 2013 were the largest natural disaster in Alberta’s history by almost every measure – the extent of the damage, the number of people affected and the financial cost. We cannot let a disaster of this magnitude happen again.”
Between infrastructure damage and the hit to the province’s economy, the 2013 flood resulted in an estimated $6 billion in damage as a dozen southern Alberta communities declared a state of emergency. In comparison, the $297 million reservoir project is a drop in the proverbial bucket. But that might not be sufficient to adequately protect Albertans from further floods.
While Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi welcomed the funding announcement, he suggested work is still required to reduce the flood potential along the Bow River. Other southern Alberta communities also remain susceptible to flooding. As recently as June 2014, Fort Macleod was in a state of emergency as water levels rose along the Oldman River, and floodwaters damaged homes in Standoff on the Blood Reserve.
Protecting communities from potential floods costs money – something that isn’t flowing abundantly in Alberta at present – but it’s an investment that can produce much bigger savings.
In 1950, the Red River flood devastated Winnipeg, forcing the evacuation of 100,000 people, destroying four bridges and causing damage that was estimated at somewhere between $600 million and $1 billion (bear in mind, that’s 1950 dollars).
The massive flood prompted then-Manitoba premier Duff Roblin to push for construction of the Red River Floodway in Winnipeg in the 1960s. The costly project had its share of critics, but in subsequent years, “Duff’s Ditch” has resulted in an estimated $10 billion in flood damage savings.
The wisdom of taking steps to prevent or reduce the impact of natural disasters isn’t news to decision makers. About seven years ago, the federal government, along with provincial and territorial governments, launched Canada’s National Disaster Mitigation Strategy, which noted, “Mitigation actions provide significant return on investment. Benefit-cost ratios for flood prevention measures in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom are 3:1, 4:1 and 5:1, respectively.”
Clearly, the value of such mitigation investments is well-documented. But the savings are realized only if such investments are actually made. That requires the political will to put the needed money toward such projects, even in the face of criticism about the cost. At the end of the day, it’s money well spent.
Duff Roblin wasn’t popular with everyone in Manitoba when his government built the Red River Floodway, but it was a decision which was in the best interests of citizens, even if they didn’t realize it at the time – like a parent giving a sick child a spoonful of awful-tasting medicine.
Alberta is similarly wise to spend money now to mitigate the impact of future flood events.