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A Tale of Two Soggy Cities

July 11, 2013

I live in Toronto. I spent much of my life in Calgary. I still have relatives in Cowtown. Lately both of these cities have been in the news for being flooded. In both cases, the story even got onto Russian TV.

The Calgary case was much more serious. A good part of the city was flooded after huge rains created flooding which overwhelmed the embankments. Weeks later, some people are still not able to move back into their homes.

A few small towns near Calgary seem to have been effectively wiped out. This includes one where I spent some time as a kid, and used to visit relatives there. But the relatives have all died or moved away now.

Compared to this, the Toronto flood was not much. I did not even notice it until I turned on the TV and was informed that a disaster was in progress. I just thought it was another Toronto summer rain storm in a very rainy year. I was high and dry and kept working.

The part of Toronto where I live seems invulnerable to these periodic floodings. It is on reclaimed land and everything was designed in the first place to facilitate drainage. My apartment building does not have a basement.

The old part of Toronto is built on a site suitable for a city. The ground is flat and slopes gently down to the lake. Bad flooding happens in the suburbs where developer greed overrules planning sense. Water builds up fast in hollows where it cannot drain away fast enough and submerges cars.

One of the main freeways in Toronto is build on the flood path of the Don river and we get pictures of all the marooned beamers and Benzes at least once a year. But generally people here have sense enough to not build anything on flood plains. We do have a poorly designed subway system that floods with every summer flash storm. There are office buildings which flood regularly. No one ever seems to want to spend the money to make the modifications which would solve these floods. Easier to just clean up after.

It was an exceptionally heavy rainstorm; a months worth of rain in two hours. So the power went out in a few places but not where I was. After midnight, when the rain stopped, I went outside and walked around the neighborhood, which had survived nicely; lights on, water already drained away.

By noon the next day, all power had been restored and the subways were running. Within two days, all buildings had reopened. This was the worst rainstorm ever in a city that gets these flash rainstorms where the water comes down so hard you can barely breathe while standing in it. I got caught in one just last week while walking home with groceries and was soaked instantly.

Compared to this, the stuff coming down as shown on TV in Calgary was just sprinkling. The rain was up in the mountains. When I lived there, we tended to get spring floods but the embankments held them. Only places where no embankment was built because the people living there were nobodies flooded.

There were worries that bigger floods might be coming and the embankments needed to be build up. It doesn't seem that this was ever done.

But I know a secret that really is no secret. Calgary is the wrong place to build a city. Even the original police post at the fork of the Bow and Elbow kept getting flooded but they would not move it. When the railroad arrived they built their station right on this flood plain.

I think the indian scout who recommended the site to the pale faces coming to build the police post was having a joke or some revenge. But this is a common problem with western cities; people built towns in sheltered valleys close to a river, which is okay until the river floods in the spring. They become invested in that site and as the town grew into a city they were stuck with it.

The city center of Calgary, with all those big office towers, is built in the worst place for them. It is a floodplain. The high hills all around trap smog as well as make transportation difficult.

The ground used to be a lake and is wet, sloppy gravel; the worst thing to lay subways, sewers, or the foundations of office buildings in. Expanding ice in winters wrecks roads and foundations. Because of the special foundations required, it costs about three times as much to put up an office tower in Calgary as it does in Toronto, or if they built it somewhere else. Still they all cluster downtown.

I know a bigger secret. In the 1920's a report was prepared about the flood problem in Calgary. The engineers advised moving Calgary right out of the bowl it was sitting in and rebuilding it a couple of miles east, where the ground was more suitable for a city. This is right where the Forest Lawn neighborhood is right now. I am sure there were no evacuations in the greater Forest Lawn area.

Of course, this move did not happen. City planning? Any planning? That is communism! Let the market decide. So the market decided to build large residential districts and critical infrastructure on flood plains.

But some construction people made money in the 1920's through 1950's building that system of embankments, dams, and canals. That solved the problem until "global warming" lead to bigger floods in this century. The globbie warmies have lead to markets in carbon tradeoffs and alternative energies that do not work, but no market in protecting water sheds.

And that is what all these floods are about, not this global warming boomfog. The Bow and Elbow valleys upstream of Calgary are becoming developed. The water does not soak into the ground; it runs off the pavement and into the rivers.

Further upstream the Kananaskis forest is being over logged, leading to erosion and runoff. The wisdom of the market; make money clear cutting the forest, then more money repairing the flood damage. If we do enough damage and cause enough flooding, there is money to be made raising the embankments even higher.

To return to Toronto, people are a bit smarter here. We have managed to preserve most of the Oak Ridge morraines, the natural regulator of the rivers traversing greater Toronto. Our floods are fairly predictible and nothing is built in the river ravines except some transportation infrastructure.

That flooding is mostly from sewer runoff and quickly clears away. The city's storm sewer system even comes with extra large surge tanks. This is Toronto; we know what to do during our flash summer rainstorms; get indoors and watch the yuppies on tv driving their Ferraris right into two meters of water and then abandoning them.

I hear that all my Calgary relatives survived the great deluge. Some live in Forest Heights. They could look down and across the Bow at the hapless residents of Inglewood who live in those hundred year old houses which have probably flooded fifty times.

There are no true natural disasters.