News / Calgary

Scientists pan Alberta's massive dam plan for Elbow River

Scientists, environmentalists, and the former superintendent of Banff National Park are raising serious concerns about the Alberta government’s plan to build a dam in Kananaskis capable of holding more than twice as much water as the Glenmore Reservoir.

Variously describing the plan as “disheartening,” “gut-wrenching,” and “pretty crazy,” Brian Meagher, a provincial biologist with Trout Unlimited Canada, said the government is overselling the protection the proposed dry dam on the Elbow River would offer Calgary from future flooding, and downplaying its environmental impact.

“This is being done in the guise of trying to protect residents who live in the floodplain,” Meagher said. “It’s being sold to them as being a panacea.”

Jim Stelfox, a senior fisheries biologist who retired from the provincial government last month, shared those concerns.

“They’re trying to push it so fast and so far and present in such a way that nobody dares oppose it,” he said, adding that, despite a flashy announcement from Premier Alison Redford in Calgary last week, few details of the plan have yet been publicly revealed – including its precise location.

A rough map was presented at the province’s “Flood Symposium” in October and a spokesman for the Flood Recovery Task Force said a more detailed map should be posted online later this week.

The site is near the Elbow’s confluence with Quirk Creek, a few kilometers upstream from the popular Elbow Falls day-use area.

Stelfox said the dam would not only pose a risk to threatened trout species, but the massive lake it would create during high flows would cover huge sections of “pristine forest” in silt and debris.

“Most of those trees upstream are going to end up dead,” he said.

The dam could retain up to 44 million cubic metres of water, according to the province. The Glenmore Reservoir, by comparison, holds 17.6 million cubic metres, according to the city.

The proposed site of the dry dam on the Elbow River is indicated by the yellow dot. (Alberta government image)

The proposed site of the dry dam on the Elbow River is indicated by the yellow dot. (Alberta government image)

Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development spokesperson Nikki Booth admitted the dry dam “would be a major project,” the likes of which the province has not seen in some time, but noted it would be subject to all the typically mandated environmental assessments, which have yet to begin.

“Obviously the concerns are something we take very seriously,” Booth said. “We need to make sure something is not going to negatively impact the environment.”

Former Banff National Park Supt. Kevin Van Tighem, however, described the dam plan as “sheer lunacy” in a recent online posting.

“It is upstream from most of the flood-generating tributaries; it is in a river reach characterized by aggradation of gravel deposits (i.e. It will be clogged with sediment in no time); it will destroy the bottom ends of three creeks that support native trout species classified as species at risk; it will be ugly as sin; and IT WON'T WORK!” he recently posted on Facebook.

“Every time Alberta has a natural disaster it responds with a boondoggle,” Van Tighem added.

But Andre Corbould, head of the Alberta Flood Recovery Task Force, said the Elbow River dry dam was selected as one of the first flood-mitigation projects to proceed with because it is expected to have "the least impact."

"We think the environmental review will be easier," Corbould told reporters in Calgary last week. "We think the consultation will be, in many ways, easier than some of the other ones."

Redford said last week she wants to move ahead "as soon as possible" with flood mitigation projects, but added, "that this is going to depend on what the final design is and how the stakeholder engagement goes and how the regulatory approvals go."

"At the end of the day, we're not going to put something in place that in the longer term could have an adverse environmental impact," the premier said. "These are complicated issues – we saw that in how rivers flowed during the flood – and we want to make sure we get this right."

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