SUNDRE — Paddy Munro works his jet boat to the bank on the Red Deer River and points to what worries him so much.
More accurately, it’s what he doesn’t see that bothers him.
What isn’t there along this stretch of the river a few kilometres west of Sundre is a bank high enough to hold back flood waters, like those that came in 2005 and before that 1995.
Once that happens, there is little to stop the water from creeping across low-lying land to the north.
As the water moves north and east, it could take out Sundre’s airport, where Paddy keeps a plane, cut off Coyote Creek Golf and RV Resort — and if nothing were done to stop it, the water could flow into Sundre itself.
“That would be devastating.”
It’s an untenable situation, says Munro, who is the reeve of Mountain View County and has spent 30 years jet boating up and down the ribboned river. It’s popular with jet boaters because of its many challenging side channels.
It was on one of those side channels where the latest problems arose.
At the end of June, the river broke free of the route it had taken for nearly 60 years and chose a new route to the north, in some spots hundreds of metres away from the old channel.
The water reached the top of the riverbank and the county scrambled over the July long weekend to reinforce the banks with a rock barrier near one homeowner’s property because of fears the water was going to breach.
It didn’t, but it was close. And this was not an exceptional year for runoff.
“It’s like the point of a funnel. All we did was block it so it can’t go down that way,” he said, adding all that was in the way of the water were a few willows, spruce trees and a little mud.
If nothing had been done, “there’s no doubt in our mind the river would be going there now,” he says.
As further evidence of the near miss, culverts underneath the airport and near the RV resort were completely full.
An elevation map clearly shows the danger.
From a county range road a few kilometres west of the airport, the land drops 21 metres, and about the same amount again to the Town of Sundre.
“We know that water flows downhill. So once it starts in that path, it will go that way,” he says.
The only thing stopping the water is a small height of land along the river. “If that river goes on the north side of that, it will stay there. There is nothing to bring it back.”
To avoid this ominous scenario, county officials are pushing for construction of a berm that is one metre higher than the one-in-100-year flood level to keep the river on its southerly route, preventing it from cutting the corner.
Matrix Solutions, a consulting company that has worked extensively with the county in the past on trouble spots along the river, has suggested some options.
The best answer is a 4.5-km berm protecting low-lying areas north of the river. It would cost about $2.5 million. Shorter berms at the highest risk spots could be built for between $333,400 and $582,000.
Munro said they have been working actively to get their message out.
“We’ve talked to everybody there is to talk to,” he said, rhyming off a list that spans municipal, provincial and federal governments, and includes such key players as Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner. Rocky Mountain House MLA Ty Lund has also been championing the berm project in Edmonton.
Munro says it makes sense to spend money now on prevention rather than pour millions into building barriers to protect Sundre and other areas in the event of a flood.
Coyote Creek Golf and RV Resort general manager Bruce Johnson said if the nearby river overflowed, it would pass through low-lying areas near the 18-hole golf course and a 296-site RV resort, both of which sit on higher ground.
“It wouldn’t actually come right through our property here, but it would be to the north of us towards the airport,” he said, adding he shares Munro’s concerns.
While the golf course and resort would not flood, it could block access if the water was running high enough and measures weren’t taken such as additional culverts or the berm.
Johnson fully supports the county’s efforts to seek help.
Alberta Environment spokeswoman Carrie Sancartier said Renner and department staff have met with the county staff twice in July to review the issue.
A berm application from the county was received on Tuesday and will be reviewed by the department to ensure all the necessary information has been provided.
“We will work with the county to ensure that environmental requirements of our legislation are met,” she said. “We expect that this process will be completed within a matter of weeks.”
If approved, the county can begin the work. There is no word yet on funding.
Meanwhile, Munro can’t help but wonder at nature’s workings.
“It’s kind of neat the way the river moves back and forth. It’s fascinating,” he says.
“Every time we come out here with the boat, it’s a new river. That’s the fun of it.”
— copyright Red Deer Advocate