Sharon McCaughan says she has spent the past several years in a state of unease and hopelessness waiting to hear if the province would buy out her flood-prone property on the Highwood River south of Calgary.
A buyout would allow her to find a safer place to live and set up the family’s heavy equipment and mining business.
The McCaughans are included in a list of 11 flood-prone properties downstream of High River. The County of Foothills deems them to be at risk of more and greater flood events due to the work that was done to protect the town after the 2013 flood.
“Every spring, you’re anxious. It’s always in the back of your mind. You don’t know what’s going to happen,” said McCaughan.
The county says for years it’s been asking the province for $12.8 million to buy and remediate all 11 properties.
In March 2019, the province, under the former NDP government, agreed to purchase the first two properties on the list for a total of $2 million.
The county says the understanding was that this was the first of six instalments, equalling its larger ask. But the McCaughans are third on that list and are still waiting to be bought out.
“We’re just all in limbo.”
The problem, McCaughan says, is she and her neighbours have been holding off on making flood-related repairs, landscaping or upgrading their homes because they don’t want to invest a lot of money into their properties if they’re just going to be sold and knocked down.
Rhonda Taylor says she needs a new septic tank worth $20,000 but is holding off, for now.
“So you don’t know whether you should or you shouldn’t because you don’t know if you’re going to get the call or if they’re going to tell you to go to hell or or what,” said Taylor, who lives on seven acres (2.8 hectares) of land downstream from High River.
‘Paying the price’
After the initial disbursement of $2 million in 2019, the County of Foothills requested further amounts but says these were denied in both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 fiscal years.
The county hasn’t applied yet for the current fiscal year.
“Certainly we feel let down, we’re frustrated. You know, we continue to plug away at this and keep hitting walls,” said Julie McLean, senior planner for the County of Foothills.
McLean says it’s not fair to leave these homeowners vulnerable when it’s the result of something beyond their control.
The province spent more than $100 million to build berms, dikes and flood gates to protect High River from future flooding.
These efforts divert water away from the town and the Little Bow River, where it used to spill over, pushing more of the water downstream.
And McLean says that according to engineering reports, that would mean those 11 properties are at risk for more flooding events and would get pummelled with greater amounts if there was a flood, ranging from 0.2 to 0.9 metres in a 2013 equivalent.
“They’re paying the price for the protection that was given to the town. And we’re not saying that the town shouldn’t be protected, we would never go down that road. But we do feel that the people that are paying for that decision should be treated fairly,” said McLean
‘Finish the project’
In a statement by the Ministry of Environment and Parks, it says it recognizes there is more work to be done in Foothills County to improve flood resilience. However, it says that due to the province’s financial situation, it can’t provide more than the initial $2 million grant at this time.
Instead, it says it’s working to amend existing grant agreements with both Foothills County and the Town of High River so that any surplus funds could be reallocated to help with downstream flood resilience. But it says it won’t know how much that could amount to until the end of the year.
McLean says she’s not sure what that would amount to but believes it’s far below the additional $10.8 million the county has been seeking.
“The government spent so much money to protect High River. It seems like this is such a tiny little extra bit to finish the project. It’s like they haven’t finished it,” said McLean.
McLean says the county did look at berming the affected residences as a means of protection but in most cases it was much more expensive than buying them out.
McCaughan says it’s wrong for the province to make everybody sit on pins and needles for so long worried about when he next flood strikes.
“We’ve been forgotten and we need a voice. I don’t think I can make it through another flood, I really don’t. You’re just worn out, you know, you’re just at the end of your rope,” said McCaughan.
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