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A decade in the making: $47-million Alberta spillway project taking shape

Grant Cameron
A decade in the making: $47-million Alberta spillway project taking shape
SOUTHERN REGIONAL STORMWATER DRAINAGE COMMITTEE — The Horsefly Regional Emergency Spillway Project in Taber, Alta. will employ about 150 workers over several years and consists of upgrades to the existing reservoir, enlarging 14 kilometres of irrigation canals and the St. Mary River main canal.

After roughly a decade of planning and preparation, the Municipal District of Taber (MDOT) in Alberta will soon be hiring an engineering consultant to work on designs for the initial phase of a massive $47-million spillway project to protect residents, property and crops during periods of severe flooding.

The district and other communities in the surrounding southern region of the province have experienced five 100-year flood events in the last 10 years which has resulted in millions of dollars in widespread property, farmland, and infrastructure damage, and forced some residents to evacuate their homes.

The venture, known as the Horsefly Regional Emergency Spillway Project, will employ about 150 workers over several years and consists of upgrades to the existing reservoir, enlarging 14 kilometres of irrigation canals and the St. Mary River main canal.

“The technical committee for the project is in the process of finalizing the request for proposals for engineering services,” explains Gary Franz, who is chair of the Southern Regional Stormwater Drainage Committee. “Pending final approval, an engineering consultant will be hired for Phase 1 of the Horsefly Spillway project by the end of January 2021 and the project will get started with the design.”

When completed, the project will enable stormwater to be diverted from the St. Mary River Irrigation District (SMRID) main canal to the Oldman River during heavy rainfall events to protect infrastructure in the municipality.

The existing canal will be expanded and new drainage infrastructure will be built. An emergency spillway will be developed to release water from the SMRID. Existing irrigation infrastructure will be enlarged by adding concrete control structures and road crossing culverts to handle a flow of approximately 55 cubic metres per second.

Plans call for the project to proceed in three phases. The first phase will involve work from the Taber Lake Reservoir to the Oldman River, the second will entail upgrades from the Horsefly Reservoir to Taber Lake Reservoir, and the final phase will be from the SMRID main canal to the Horsefly Reservoir area. There will also be two wetland components added to the entranceway areas to the two reservoirs.

The irrigation water delivered by the main canal of the SMRID supplies about 200,000 hectares of farmland in southern Alberta. In the past, as stormwater runoff would overwhelm and threaten the canal’s structural integrity, an immediate shutoff of the main canal was the only way to prevent a breach.

However, such shutoffs result in the loss of vital irrigation water needed to maintain high-value specialty crops and essential drinking water to many residents across southern Alberta.

A report published in 2015 by the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association estimated a total of $230 million in direct losses to farms if the main canal were to breach, with a further indirect loss of $585 million to Alberta’s economy.

Severe flooding from major snow melt and heavy precipitation events has occurred in the south region of the province at least five times since 2010, causing significant damage. Spring floods of 2018 from Taber to Sauder Spillway, for example, resulted in almost $5 million in damage to infrastructure in the area.

Franz says the ambitious project will provide water security for residents and farmers and protect area homes.

“We all recognize the importance in controlling storm drainage to prevent damage to homes and infrastructure. Also, southern Alberta has proven itself as a leader in ag sector food processing. This extra layer of water security will highlight continued diversified investment in agriculture and food processing.”

Numerous jobs are expected to be created during the design and construction elements of each of the three phases of the project, consisting of engineering consultants and their staff, geotechnical and other professionals, surveyors, construction equipment operators, concrete workers and day labour staff.

The Southern Regional Stormwater Drainage Committee was formed 10 years ago to develop a long-term solution to the stormwater runoff events. Partners on the committee include the MDOT, numerous counties and towns, the City of Medicine Hat and the St. Mary River and Taber irrigation districts.

Over the last several months, the MDOT has received a total of $39 million in grant money from both senior levels of government, including $9.8 million recently from the federal government for phases two and three. Alberta has contributed $7.4 million for phase one and nearly $13 million for phases two and three. Municipal partners are responsible for funding the remainder.

Franz says the project has come a long way and he is relieved the money has started to flow.

“It has taken some time to build collaboration amongst the municipal members of our committee. Even with the grants pledged with the province at 33 per cent and the federal program in at 40 per cent, we still need firm commitment from every member in our committee to pay the initial 27 per cent to make it work.”

MDOT Reeve Merrill Harris says value-added industries that have come to southern Alberta have done so because existing irrigation infrastructure guarantees a continual supply of water for their factory or plant.

The upgrades, he says, will lay the groundwork to attract further investment in the agricultural and food processing industry, leading to further job creation and a brighter economic future for all southern Albertans.

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