2013 Alberta Flood: A call to action

by Catherine Haug, July 5, 2013

We all listened with heavy hearts when we learned of the hundreds who lost their homes or died as a result of the recent flooding in Alberta. But while this was an unusual weather event (compared to past history), it may just be an example of what is to come as our weather systems become more extreme from the effects of global climate change.

Whether you believe climate change is a natural cycle of nature, or is at least partly caused by human actions, the fact is that our climate IS changing. And any one of us could experience intense weather and flooding of this magnitude. In fact, it has happened in the Flathead’s recent history: the 1964 flood.

Karsten Heuer of Canmore, Alberta writes of the flood, “This is our wake-up call. We know from climate change models that heavy rain events and flash floods like this will happen more frequently. Our infrastructure is not built for this extreme weather. Our communities – including major cities like Calgary – are situated on flood plains. And clear-cut logging near our headwaters undermines the forests’ ability to absorb and slow down the flow of water.”

There are things we can do to minimize the devastating effects of events such as were experienced in Alberta. Perhaps the most important is to protect the ecosystem of our headwaters, as described in the following essay by Karsten Heuer of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) team.

Read on for all of Karsten’s essay.

Pertinent questions 

The problem is not unique to Alberta; it can happen anywhere, and our corner of Montana is a prime candidate. Consider the following questions as you read Karsten’s essay:

  • Will we protect our headwaters and restore ecosystems devastated by logging, mining and over-grazing?
  • Will we protect fragile ecosystems to minimize runoff?
  • Will we protect marshland?
  • Will we support stream-side setbacks and restore shorelines and stream-sides damaged by erosion?
  • Will we decide where roads can be built/maintained, and where they must be abandoned?
  • Will we decide where motorized vehicles including snowmobiles and 4-wheelers can travel, and where they must be restricted?

Alberta’s Great Flood

Used by permission from Karsten Heuer.


Karsten’s Flood Experience
They told me it was raining so hard, it was coming down sideways on the night of Wednesday, June 19th, 2013. By 11:30 pm Cougar Creek had reached the top of the culvert. Two hours later the RCMP were knocking on the doors of residents living along the Creek warning them to be prepared to evacuate. Within 90 minutes they were fleeing their homes.
I was deep in the backcountry of Yaak, Montana, unaware that some 600 km (390 mi) away Canmore, my town – my home – was in a state of emergency.
“Cougar Creek is raging,” said one of many texts from my wife Leanne. “Two days of rain and it’s still pouring down. River rising fast. House at risk. ALL roads in and out of Canmore closed.”
I wasn’t sure how I would reach home, but I knew I had to try. I pointed the rental car north.
The Force of Nature

I have seen a lot of floods in the last few decades but within an hour of driving into Canada I knew this was something big.

Heavy, warm rains, along with the lingering winter snow pack, were sending headwater stream after headwater stream spilling over its banks. Debris flows, mud slides, and washouts were everywhere; houses and roads teetered and leaned precariously, as vulnerable as those built by my son with his Lego blocks.

As I drove through Sparwood, BC, along Highway 3 the sides of the road were crumbling into the swollen Elk River. When I hit the stretch of highway west of Longview, Alberta, the first of many washed out bridges sent me detouring east. Black Diamond, Turner Valley, Okotoks, High River; every community I entered was in a state of emergency, a legion of excavators and dump trucks throwing boulders into the raging rivers and creeks.

Approximate map of Karsten’s route home. The area in the red circle is the landscape affected by the flood.

It was well past midnight when all the detours finally brought me to Calgary. Radio updates allowed me to navigate the flooding streets and by 2 pm I was headed west into the foothills, into the eye of the storm. I asked someone who had taken shelter along the abandoned highway how many road blocks on the Trans Canada lay ahead. Their answer, coupled with my knowledge of local backroads, got me within a few kilometres of Canmore.

“How’d you get here?” asked a bleary-eyed worker. “Emergency vehicles only.”

“This is an emergency,” I pleaded. Miraculously, he let me through. By 4 am I arrived home to see emergency responders carrying a refrigerator out of my flooded basement.

What Happens in our Headwaters, Happens to All of Us

This event may have started in the headwaters of the Rocky Mountains, but the devastating effects of this deluge extends over a landscape that is half the size of Texas and touches the lives of over 1.6 million people. Mother-nature’s message is eminently clear: what happens in our headwaters, happens to all of us.

Downtown Calgary
Photo of downtown Calgary. Close to 100,000 people were evacuated from various communities in the city, making this the most extreme weather event to have hit this major Alberta city.

This is our wake-up call. We know from climate change models that heavy rain events and flash floods like this will happen more frequently. Our infrastructure is not built for this extreme weather. Our communities – including major cities like Calgary – are situated on flood plains. And clear-cut logging near our headwaters undermines the forests’ ability to absorb and slow down the flow of water.

Now, two weeks later, people are asking the bigger questions: What have we learned? How do we keep this from happening again? Will we change?

Like so many, we too want to contribute to the recovery – to safeguard our communities from this type of tragedy in the future. We feel our role is to highlight how our ecosystems can be our allies in reducing the impacts of these types of floods to our human communities.

High River
The community of High River was one of the worst hit. The majority of the town was underwater.
One Solution to Consider

Witnessing how these flood waters took over the Southern Alberta landscape reinforces the need to re-examine everything we do in our headwater lands and streams, and take steps to reduce the impacts of future large storms. We are in new territory and we need to make new choices.
The timing for Alberta’s South Saskatchewan Regional Plan couldn’t be better. This plan, currently in development, sets out how we will use the land base in the flood affected, southern portion of the province. It will determine what lands and waters we protect, where we will and won’t log, where we do and don’t build roads to search for oil and gas, and more. If done right, it can alleviate some of the impacts of these massive flooding events and potentially the droughts forecasted for the late summer.
Here at Y2Y, we want to ensure that this plan protects our headwaters, our homes, our livelihoods, and our right to clean water, and recreational opportunities. We want to learn from what’s just happened and seize the opportunity to build a plan that ensures healthy headwater ecosystems and safe downstream communities.

Your Call to Action
Effective regional planning has never been more important. In the coming weeks we will ask all Albertans to comment on the draft South Saskatchewan Regional Plan. If we protect Alberta’s headwaters, we take an important step to protect ourselves.We all hope that you and your families are safe and dry. We know that many have not been able to return to their homes and our profound empathy is with all of you. We have all lost something, and this central portion of the Yellowstone to Yukon region is changed forever.Like you, Leanne and I, and the other members of the Y2Y team are rebuilding our homes, our lives and our communities.

Cleaning out book store
Canmore residents respond to the call for help from local business person. Photo: Stephen Legault
Backhoe's at work
Excavator rebuilding Cougar Creek. Photo: Stephen Legault

I know that together we can be stronger than we were even two weeks ago. With your help and support, we can seize this opportunity before us and ensure Alberta sets the highest standard for headwaters protection and management.

Thousands of volunteers showed up to help Calgary’s community of Bowness clean-up after the flood. Bowness was one of the worst hit by this event.

For the wild,

Karsten First Name Signature

Karsten Heuer and the entire Y2Y team

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