Factoring the ‘people equation’ into future flood hazard planning key to helping communities recover

- community input necessary to help with future flood reduction strategies
- flood hazard mapping needs to be updated as communities and river systems change
- majority of flood hazard studies are now up to two decades old

A University of Lethbridge geography researcher is suggesting that flood mitigation and future planning processes involve people in the communities most affected – to help cities and towns look ahead and reduce some of the challenges faced across the province by recent flooding.

Dr. Tom Johnston, who studies human dimensions of natural hazards, said that as much as the recently-announced flood mitigation plan and other measures, such as an expert panel on flood issues, are important and timely steps forward, the processes by which people and the environment engage is what concerns him as flood reduction planning begins.

"With many thousands of people displaced over a short period of time, entire communities affected by flooding and the dramatic change that has brought to how people live, work and interact with each other, the critical element to planning for the future is community engagement."

Johnston says that structural responses – constructing flood-control dams, or physically changing or dredging parts of a river to better manage water flow -- need to be matched with non-structural or policy-based responses, such as incorporating the latest and best available flood hazard information into community and land-use planning, and even prohibiting development in high-risk places.

"It is extremely important that in addition to scientists and engineers that we have community involvement in any land-use planning process, not only to ensure that the challenge of flooding is minimized, but also to have the community members be aware of, and fully involved in, the future of their community."

Johnston adds that social scientists, such as human geographers and other behavioural scientists also need to be included in the discussion because their expertise would complement the expertise of hydrologists and engineers. "One would be foolish to consult a cardiologist about a hip replacement, so why would we rely on experts trained in disciplines that don't deal with understanding human behaviour for advice on human dimensions of hazard management?"

Johnston says that it's stating the obvious that no one wishes to go through another flood season like this. "Regardless of how affected a particular community is – from severe to moderate -- it would be prudent to get people more directly involved and looking ahead not only to next year, but 30 or more years in the future, so they could say they helped to solve a big problem for the next generation of residents. This year's flooding in the Bow River Basin was extreme. The chances of a flood of that magnitude occurring in any given year are very low — probably less than one per cent — but we need to remember that includes next year."

The Government of Alberta recently rolled out a Flood Hazard Mitigation Plan, which Johnston says will be helpful to increase public awareness about flood-affected areas of the province.

"A central feature of the plan is a web-based interactive map that highlights "Flood Hazard Areas" down to the local scale. The GIS-based system is operator friendly, and if you have used interactive mapping software on your smart phone or some other device, you can easily navigate this system," Johnston says.

The hazard maps will be useful for home buyers, and should be helpful in guiding flood-proofing efforts and for land-use planning, Johnston adds, but in order for the system to achieve anything close to its full potential, two conditions must be satisfied.

"First, the studies used to delineate flood hazard areas should be as current as possible. Second, local and regional authorities charged with the responsibility for land-use planning must be willing to use the system to guide their decision making, even though this could involve constraining the range of residential location choices available to citizens."

Johnston says that as of June, 2013, more than 50 flood hazard studies had been completed for the provincial government.

"The most recent studies in and around the communities experiencing severe flooding in June were completed after February, 1996, or 17 years ago." ( )

"Many were completed under the Canada-Alberta Flood Damage Reduction Program, a program which began in 1989, but lapsed in 1999. The studies covered most of the province, including all of the heavily populated ones. A majority of the studies -- approximately 60 per cent -- are now up to two decades old. During that time, communities have changed, and the physical geography of entire regions have changed as residential and commercial developments increased."

Given the recent flood events, future hazard zone mapping should be more consistent, Johnston says.

"We are dealing with dynamic systems, many of which are under increasing pressure from a variety of human activities, so it is prudent to make sure they are done regularly."

When a panel chaired by George Groeneveld, then the Alberta MLA for the constituency of Highwood (encompassing High River and surrounding areas) submitted its report following the 2005 floods (website link below) Johnston says it included in its recommendations that Alberta Environment develop a maintenance program to ensure that the flood risk maps are updated when appropriate. "This is a recommendation that many in the flood mitigation and hazard response communities would like to see acted upon sooner rather than later."

As well, Johnston says that any future planning process should also include a review of legislation surrounding land development to require that the level of flood hazard must be taken into account in the course of land development decisions.

"The current regulations state that local authorities 'may' require developers to stipulate "…if the land subject to the application is located in a potential flood plain.' The province may wish to raise the bar in light of recent events."

Additional Resources:

"Provincial Flood Mitigation Report: Consultation and Recommendations"

The State of Flood Plain Mapping in Ontario (a report prepared for the Catastrophic Loss Reduction Institute of Canada):

Flood Plain Mapping (overview of BC program):

FEMA Flood Plain Map Service Center:

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Dr. Tom Johnston, Department of Geography
(403) 329-2534 office
(403) 915-5805 cell

Dr. Johnston will be away from the office on August 19, 20 and 21, but can be available via cellphone and e-mail