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Alberta's cities rarely spend federal cash on disaster prevention

Calgarians look out over a flooded Calgary Stampede grounds and Saddledome in Calgary, Friday, June 21, 2013.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

While receiving hundreds of millions of federal dollars for infrastructure since 2006, southern Alberta's flood-battered communities focused on building highways, leisure centres and event facilities rather than flood protection, which Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi acknowledges is not considered a "hugely sexy thing."

Flood mitigation projects – such as berms, dikes and floodways that could contain or divert water – are eligible to receive federal infrastructure funds, and Ottawa says the projects are chosen locally by municipalities or provinces.

Cities have long said they are facing multibillion-dollar infrastructure deficits, meaning they must pick priorities for whatever federal cash they do get. Flood prevention hasn't been one such priority.

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Since 2006, the list of projects Calgary sought, and received, Infrastructure Canada money for includes $138-million for roads, $63-million for public transit, $25-million for the home of the Calgary Stampede and another $25-million for a National Music Centre.

Calgary's 17 listed projects total about $366-million in federal cash. But none appear to have dealt with disaster mitigation, which an Infrastructure Canada spokesperson said "has been an eligible category for funding under several Building Canada and Economic Action Plan initiatives." Municipalities have little financial incentive to pick disaster mitigation projects – when disaster does strike, the province foots the initial bill, with federal taxpayers ultimately picking up the vast majority of costs. In the case of High River, Alta., municipal officials ultimately stepped aside altogether, allowing the province to lead the recovery plan as well as pay for it.

Asked after the flooding why the city has not spent on flood prevention projects, Mr. Nenshi – who became mayor in late 2010 – said Calgary has a $23-billion infrastructure wish-list. There just isn't enough federal cash to go around, he said.

"While we are incredibly appreciative of the federal government's commitment to infrastructure funding, most recently in Budget 2013, all we can ever fund is a small portion of what needs to be done," the mayor said.

However, he said the city has done as much on flood planning as it has been able to afford on its own. Flood prevention, he said, "has never seemed to be a hugely sexy thing, particularly among the other orders of government. But we have been working quietly away on it, beavering away on a plan."

The province has also faced questions about inaction. After a major flood in 2005, an Alberta report was published calling for $306-million in improvements to help brace for any future flooding. The province sat on that report for six years before finally releasing it last year, and says it has made progress on some of the recommendations, but not its key one – stopping the sale of Crown land on flood plains for development.

If governments don't spend on flood prevention projects, they risk paying a steeper cost when a flood hits. Alberta has now pledged $1-billion for a flood relief, a figure Finance Minister Doug Horner expects to rise. "The reality is we know [the flood cost] is going to be probably in the multibillion-dollar range over the next five to 10 years," he said in a recent interview.

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The federal government, meanwhile, could be on the hook for nearly 90 per cent of rebuilding costs, though it could be years before federal funding arrives.

Facing questions last month about what the province has done to brace for flooding, Environment Minister Diana McQueen questioned what impact preparation would have had on such a large-scale disaster.

"I want to stress that what Alberta has experienced in this past week was unprecedented – more rain, more quickly and over a larger area than had ever been seen before in this province. No report or recommendation looking at the recommendations of the past could have prepared us for this event. But the work that we've done, that all Albertans have done, certainly has helped us respond to it quickly and effectively," she said.

Several of this month's flood-ravaged towns and cities got infrastructure funding since the 2005 flood. That includes High River, which was entirely evacuated for nine days in this year's flood. It got about $5-million and spent it on roads. Canmore got about $2.3-million and spent it on highway resurfacing, while Banff had a single project approved – $15-million for the Banff Centre for Creativity and Innovation.

Medicine Hat, a region that saw extensive flooding in 2010, has received about $18-million in federal infrastructure cash since 2006, and spent most of it on road work and a $10-million leisure centre expansion.

Cities also receive money for infrastructure from the federal gas tax. For Calgary, that's another $364-million in additional projects that the city picked, beyond those listed by the federal government. The city could pick flood projects going forward – the 2013 federal budget once again included disaster mitigation as an eligible category for the $21.8-billion Gas Tax Fund.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

Alberta reporter

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