A River Acting Unnaturally

East Village Calgary Flood 2013. Source: Ryan Quan via Wikipedia

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Surely one of the more bizarre turn of events in Calgary’s flooding in 2013 was the city zoo’s animal evacuation. St. George’s Island, where the zoo is located, was inundated on June 20, the first day of flooding. As water levels rose, keepers scrambled to move animals to higher ground. Two hippos escaped their enclosure and very nearly found an exit from the Africa Savannah building via a broken window. Armed with high powered rifles and using a bobcat to bar the animals’ jailbreak, keepers finally contained the duo. Zoo staff knew what was at stake. It was not certain how the two distressed hippos could have been rounded up if they had entered the Bow and made a break for it downriver into the open prairie.

Most Calgarians have been struck at how quickly nature was transformed during the flood. The near frolic of African wild animals in Bow waters, however, has underscored a reality about the river itself. It is no longer natural. This admission is not to be found in Calgary’s real estate market narrative, where riverside properties are some of the highest valued in the city. Indeed, the most common media comment during the flooding was that we should have known better and forestalled development along “natural areas” still prone to 100 and 150 year highwater flooding. In 2005, the Elbow River bucked its banks and flooded numerous homes, many of them with heritage status, in Calgary’s downtown core. At the time, it was regarded as a “wake up call” for the city’s more intensive residential living, condo construction and multimillion dollar home building perilously close to both the Elbow and Bow Rivers. Real estate prices initially stalled after that flood, but soon after climbed again so that to the present, the “natural” appeals of river frontage have pushed home prices to some of the highest on the market.

The Bow’s unnatural nature is, however, something that will likely be learned in the flood’s aftermath. Christopher Armstrong, Matthew Evenden and H.V. Nelles in their 2009 book,The River Returns: An Environmental History of the Bow, made clear that the Bow basin is one of the most heavily developed riverways in Canada with ranching, urban, irrigation and hydro development having altered almost all of its water course. Indeed, if there is an intriguing element to the river’s history in the last 100 years, it has been its thorough urbanization. Its physical character has, like the city itself, changed. Intensive development within city limits makes river banks more impervious. That increases the river’s bank-flow flooding potential. In summer, the river runs drier. When it rains, the Bow very unnaturally speeds up in city limits due to storm sewer discharge and the way water pours from the water-repellent skin of the city’s cement surfaces. Its torrential discharging during periods of rainfall increases the Bow’s erosion of urban banking. That has necessitated greater rip-rocking and channel widening.

In Calgary, one cannot easily reach the river itself because of the boulders heaped up by dump trucks along most of its length simply to keep the waters in their place. As pointed out by Calgary River Valleys, an expert consulting group giving counsel to the City of Calgary since its inception in 1989, “Urbanized rivers have reduced wetlands, floodplains, riparian buffers, seeps, springs and ephemeral channels, and consequently reduced biophysical diversity.” Many of these urban characteristics did not contribute much to the actual flooding: heavy precipitation accumulating in eastern slope catchments did. But some of the flood damages can only be explained by the close proximity of the built environment to the river’s banks. As it has urbanized, the river itself has developed a complex relationship with Calgary’s suburbs.

Ironically, two weeks before the flood, my wife and I visited a house for sale in none other than the now-flooded Bowness district. That we did so, as informed historians, might seem inconceivable. I had read Armstrong, Evenden and Nelles. I had even downloaded flood planning documents created by the City of Calgary that might guide potential real-estate buyers in the community. The survey showed that the house we were looking at, on Bow Crescent, was smack dab in the middle of one of the river’s floodplains. But the attractions of this particular house were too great not to consider. A rebuilt structure, with aspects of its 1940s construction incorporated into brand new vaulted ceilings, hardwood flooring and charming sky lights, the house also gave alluringly onto the Bow River itself. The neighbourhood was well developed. Bowness is one of the oldest and most charming communities now within Calgary boundaries. In the end, the history of Calgary’s flooding weighed into our decision to walk away from the house. But had the price been lower, or its detractions fewer, I’m not sure we would have.

My wife and I presently live in Sandstone, glimpsed in the documentary, Radiant City, which highlights the drudgery of Calgary’s massive sprawl, its monotonous home designs and deadly-speed “trails” that daily whip commuters to and from their work places. We’re not the only Calgarians starved for a more gratifying and esthetic suburban experience, to live within a real community, one with life, variety, and history. We are ready to ascribe, for that reason, greater imaginary value to the greenery, complex topography and even unpredictability of the “naturalness” of the Bow River running through the city.

If anything, this summer’s flood will force Calgarians to confront the reality that the Bow is not natural. Stochastic flooding events will likely increase in number in the coming years. Their menace will not be mitigated by making the river course more habitable or flood-proofed. Calgarians will have to understand the waterway differently: as an unnatural entity and one to be imaginatively conceived in new terms and with new values. Certainly one way that will occur will be in the beautification of Calgary’s suburban spaces themselves. The Bow will always be an important element of Calgary’s landscape, but its place and incorporation within the larger human space of the city, and especially its relationship with suburbia, will be redrawn in light of the events, and turbulent highwater marks, of the June 2013 flood.

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George Colpitts teaches environmental history at the University of Calgary. His publications include Pemmican Empire: Food, Trade, and the Last Bison Hunts in the North American Plains, 1780-1882 (Cambridge University Press, 2015); North America’s Indian Trade in European Commerce and Imagination, 1580-1850 (Brill, 2014), and Game in the Garden: A Human History of Wildlife in Western Canada to 1940 (UBC Press, 2002).

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