RMWB council sends Clearwater Drive flood plan back to the drawing board

Administration said plans to raise Clearwater Drive were becoming costly and difficult, but an alternative plan was rejected by council because of safety and financial concerns.

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Plans to raise more than 2.5 kilometres of Clearwater Drive for flood mitigation plans in downtown Fort McMurray have been scrapped. Administrative staff for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) will return to council with new options for flood-proofing the area in September.

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The issue was discussed at a Wednesday council meeting. The meeting was rescheduled from Tuesday because of a power outage.

Elliot White, the RMWB’s senior manager of environmental services, told council there have been problems with completing flood mitigation for this section of downtown. This section is called Reach 6 and covers Clearwater Drive between the Riedel Street area and the intersection with Franklin Avenue.

Administration proposed a network of berms and retaining walls between Clearwater Drive and the Clearwater River. This would cost $55.8 million, whereas raising Clearwater Drive would cost $94 million. The RMWB has already spent $119 million on flood mitigation.

The idea failed after it was rejected 5-4. Councillors Ken Ball, Lance Bussieres, Kendrick Cardinal, Keith McGrath and Stu Wigle opposed. Mayor Sandy Bowman and councillors Funky Banjoko, Allan Grandison and Jane Stroud supported the berms and walls.

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Councillor Shafiq Dogar attended remotely and missed the vote because he was in the bathroom. He had not told council he needed to be excused. Councillor Loretta Waquan was absent.

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A man walks out of downtown Fort McMurray and across a mattress bridge over muddy waters as he gets to his vehicle on Highway 63 on Monday, April 27, 2020. Flooding forced many people to park on the highway and walk into the neighbourhood after roadblocks and floodwaters stopped people from driving into the community. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network SunMedia

Original plans for Clearwater Drive difficult

A major problem with raising Clearwater Drive is Imperial Oil and Suncor own lots along that stretch of road. Both lots have contamination. Suncor does not want to sell the land, whereas Imperial Oil is interested. This would put the RMWB on the hook for environmental monitoring and cleanup.

The berms and walls would also allow room for potential future growth in downtown. Heritage Shipyard also needs to be moved, but administration hoped a berm would allow the shipyard to remain within the Reach 6 area.

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Council voted in favour of having administration work with the Fort McMurray Heritage Society to find a new location for the Heritage Shipyard. All councillors except Cardinal and McGrath approved this motion.

White told councillors they were making a “generational decision” and the temporary inflatable berms were “Band-Aid” solutions. They could puncture, he said, and long-term costs would eventually surpass both options.

A September 2020 report to council concluded the April 2020 flood happened because “a comprehensive flood-protection system was not in place.” More than 1,200 buildings were damaged and an evacuation impacted 13,000 people. It is estimated the flood caused more than $424 million in insured damages and $617 million in uninsured damages.

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Costs, safety concerns raised with current plans

Grandison urged councillors to support the new plan because it was cheaper than the original plan. He also said businesses and residents say raising Clearwater Drive is ugly because they cannot see the river. Many councillors also had concerns about the costs of raising Clearwater Drive.

Wigle and Ball had safety concerns with the berms and walls, and worried they would create blindspots. Wigle wanted input from Wood Buffalo RCMP. Ball argued his point about safety by holding a piece of paper in front of his hand and asked “how many fingers do I have up?”

“One life to me is just as important as $40 million,” said Wigle.

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The Save On Foods off Franklin Avenye is surrounded by flood waters in downtown Fort McMurray, Alta. on Monday, April 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Greg Halinda

Cardinal called all flood mitigation work a waste of money and said the RMWB should end it. He argued the temporary inflatable berms–which councillors spent the evening calling “bouncy castles–were sufficient. At the same time, he warned “if Mother Nature wants to flood this community, nothing will stop it.”

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“When other communities flooded they rebuild, they help each other and they make it happen,” said Cardinal.

“When we started this flood mitigation, it was a beautiful thing and it was going to cost us not so much. Man, we’re in over our heads and we’re going to keep on spending and spending and spending and spending and spending. When are we just going to say no? Put our foot down and stop it and and just move on?”

The rest of council, however, agreed flood mitigation is important but were divided on solutions. After the plan for berms and walls failed, Wigle proposed continuing raising Clearwater Drive. Grandison said this would not solve concerns with blind spots and, along with Banjoko, repeated concerns about costs.

Dogar argued throughout the evening that raising Clearwater Drive would cause layoffs at the RMWB. Bowman and Stroud called points of order against Dogar, arguing labour issues were not part of the motion.

Wigle withdrew his motion and proposed administration return with new options for flood mitigation. This would include safety advice from Wood Buffalo RCMP. Cardinal, Dogar and McGrath opposed this idea, while the rest of council voted in favour.

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