‘It’s devastating:’ Alberta landowners face loss of properties to prevent flood

Mary Robinson is taking it personally.

SPRINGBANK — Mary Robinson is taking it personally.

Her family has been living on Moose Hill Ranch on the edge of the Elbow River since 1888 — when Alberta was still the Northwest Territories and only four years after Calgary was incorporated as a town with a population of 506.

The rolling grasslands and hay fields of the ranch now feature a sprawling log home and an equestrian centre, where countless young people have saddled up for the first time and learned to ride.

It could all be underwater if the Alberta government goes ahead with a plan to build the off-stream Springbank reservoir.

“It’s devastating. It really is, especially at our stage of life where you think you have your life planned and you’ve done all of this for years and generations,” Robinson says.

“My kids are fifth generation here and it’s devastating that you think all of this will be ripped from us. It’s homes, families, heritage and businesses.”

Moose Hill Ranch is a possible casualty after the fact of heavy flooding that hit southern Alberta three years ago.

As much as 350 millimetres of rain fell over two days across the eastern slopes of the Rockies and a snowpack that had yet to melt. There was nowhere for all the water to go and the resulting deluge wiped out roads and bridges and swamped streets, homes and vehicles across southern Alberta.

Five people were killed and the damage estimate ran into the billions, making it one of the costliest disasters in Canadian history. In Calgary, where the Bow and Elbow rivers meet, more than 70,000 people were forced to flee for higher ground. Thousands of homes and businesses were damaged.

After the disaster, the Alberta government came up with a bevy of mitigation measures to prevent similar damage in another flood.

The Springbank reservoir plan would see gates upstream of Calgary divert water during flooding from the Elbow into a canal that leads to surrounding land. The water would be channelled back into the Elbow when a flood subsided.

In the 2015 election, the NDP campaigned on an alternate plan for a dry dam at the confluence of McLean Creek and the Elbow River. But once in office the government changed its mind and announced it was proceeding with Springbank.

An environmental impact study has been ordered. Landowners will be compensated if the plan goes ahead, but they say the government will determine the price.

“When we took office as a government, the environment minister consulted the best advice you can get with respect to this,” says Infrastructure Minister Brian Mason.

He says Springbank is less expensive, would have less environmental impact and can be done quicker.

“McLean Creek could potentially damage the spawning grounds of the bull trout, for example, which is Alberta’s official fish,” he says. “It was clear that Springbank was the better alternative on almost every count.”

Lee Drewry, whose wife’s great-grandfather was one of the original settlers in the area, says he doesn’t think the government understands what it is taking away.

“I don’t think they quite get the family history and ancestry,” he says. “That’s a consistent story with a lot of the landowners out here. It’s just bad public policy.”

Drewry’s family property is at the north end of the proposed reservoir. He says about two dozen families will be affected if the reservoir goes ahead.

“We think the project should be on government land that the government already owns. It doesn’t have to take land from other Albertans.”

Robinson laments the loss of all that history as well. She proudly points to a saddle on an upstairs rail that her father used in the first Calgary Stampede.

“I was raised in a one-room log cabin down there,” she says, pointing outside.

“We’ve done a lot in our lives to struggle and keep this land. It’s rather unbelievable that someone can just come and take it from you.

“According to the plan, they will come right through here and take all of this. One of the maps shows it’s out in the middle of the front field over there,” she says, pointing out her kitchen window.

“They will take all of this.”

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