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Winnipeg a template for Calgary

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Calgary's immediate goal is to clean up the mess left by the flood last week; pump out the basements, repair the roads, restore the electricity and water services and get the city running again. Once that has been achieved, the Calgary and Alberta governments will have to improve the city's flood defences at great cost.

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(DALE CUMMINGS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

The whole world now knows Calgary can be suddenly put out of business by a downpour of rain on the high ground west of the city. This doesn't happen often but it just did. Calgary's central business district stands on the flood plain right beside the Bow River. Why would you put your business in such a city when you could just as well put it in Edmonton, whose central business district stands at the top of the banks, high above the flood plain of the North Saskatchewan River?

As long as that question stands, Calgary's economic prospects will be blighted by the memory of this flood. Likewise, Winnipeg's economic prospects were blighted by the memory of the 1950 Red River flood until the Red River Floodway was built, opening in 1968. We still get floods in southern Manitoba, but they don't stop the city from growing and prospering.

The solution in Winnipeg's case took almost 20 years. It had to wait for a provincial government that clearly saw the problem and found the consultants who could propose a solution. It had to wait for governments that were prepared to invest what then seemed like vast sums of money in one of the largest earth-moving projects ever undertaken. The solution works so well no one today complains of the time and the expense involved.

An early step for Calgary and for the Alberta government will be to document what happened this time. People soon forget what the storm was like after the sunshine returns. Eventually a great deal of money may have to be spent on a solution. People will need to be reminded how bad it gets when you don't solve the problem.

Another early step will be to see what other cities do. Nearly every city in the world has a river running through it; some of those rivers are very badly behaved. None of them, to be sure, is exactly like the Bow River at Calgary, which tumbles down from the mountains and then provides water to irrigate a vast region east and south of the city. If Calgarians look long and hard at the flood defences of enough cities, they will find a good solution to their problem.

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(DALE CUMMINGS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

Winnipeg has the advantage that Red River floods, though frequent, move slowly across the level Prairie ground. We can see a flood coming for a couple of weeks through North Dakota. We have time to break the river ice, raise the dikes and check the floodway gates. Calgary, on the other hand, has little time to prepare. The flow of the Bow River swelled to 1,450.8 cubic metres per second last Friday from 310 cubic metres per second the day before, by City of Calgary estimates. Simultaneous flooding on a second river, the Elbow, doubly complicated the picture and when the Glenmore reservoir spilled water, Calgary got wet.

There is a temptation to say these events are so rare they should be disregarded. Winnipeg held this view through the 1950s and it left the flood danger hanging like a dark cloud over the city. A few businesses moved out of the downtown core to higher ground and its central business district entered a period of decline. The opening of the floodway in 1968 and the Richardson Building at Portage and Main in 1969 marked the turnaround that restored central Winnipeg.

Calgary has a magnificent downtown core. It has an economic engine for Western Canada that is worth preserving and strengthening. If Calgary wishes to prevent economic decline due to extreme flooding, it should tackle the problem head-on and build proper flood defences.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2013 A8

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