The Human Touch

In June 2013 the rains came, the rivers rose and kept rising.  Based on my interpretation of what I heard on the news the headwaters of Cougar Creek, the Elbow River, the Sheep River, the Highwood River, and the Kananaskis River which all empty into the Bow River, were in the eye of the storm.  

To view an image of the Bow River Basin click here.

My first job out of NAIT, was in Hydrology, right next to our neighbors River Engineering. We were jointly responsible for flood forecasting in 1974.  We had a “computer” (a funny looking gadget that sat by the facsimile machine) and a word processor.  That summer I was introduced to 100 year floods, a “Model” for prediction of inches of rainfall = runoff = rising rivers. 

I remember having telephones, rain gauges, passion and dedication.  The boys over in River Engineering had a “river engineering model” they used calculate runoff and predict flow rates.  Based on this information they said the river will peak at this time at this elevation.  They needed accurate rainfall measurements.  They had an adjustment for extra snow melt with the rainfall that they had previously built into the model basin acres at each elevation.

One of my jobs was to call the people who had weather stations every hour.  I got updated reports on how many inches of water their rain gauge measure since we had last spoke. I then passed that information along to the engineer utilizing the “Model”. I also took my turn receiving inbound calls and reporting our calculations to Alberta Disaster Services every hour.

The Oldman river system flooded the summer of 1974. I’ll never forget the lady who said “It is rainin’ BUCKETS, I can’t even empty that gauge quick enough - every 15 minutes isn’t quick enough!”  Another lady said “It’s just rainin’ cats and dogs.”  Their voices set off a sense of urgency.  The human touch was alive and well.

I was part of a team that was pretty pleased we had predicted (with accuracy) the time and height of the flood to hit Lethbridge within a couple hours and within a couple inches. I remember the guys telling the engineer who had built the “Model” not to get a swelled head because it was pretty simple to calculate potential runoff when water hit rock.  I was young and naïve back then but I was pretty impressed with our accuracy. 

I think in the 2013 storm, the river levels, the timing of the arrival and quantity of water in Medicine Hat was very accurate.  Sitting back and looking at the differences between 1974 to today, I ask if we’ve automated ourselves out of “urgency”?

I have family that has farmed land in a bend on the Peace River at Carcajou and it is a flood plain.  To get there, there is an ice bridge at Tompkins landing and in my lifetime that flood plain has been under water a few times caused by ice jams.  After every flood, my uncle who loved the river, rebuilt on a little higher ground.  In one way, he benefited from the flood because the silt left after the waters receded brought new nutrients and replenished his soil.  Although there were some years he had no crop, because it took the water so long to go away.  I learned a bit about floods.  When the level of the river drops, the water doesn’t always go away.  Every time it flooded the water got trapped and stayed, requiring a newly engineered drainage system and time.  The water seldom goes away as fast as it comes.  The last time I was home during a flood we moved 20,000 bushels of grain in 3 days.  We had to shovel the bottoms of the bins out by hand.  Every time a truck was full we’d go outside of the bin for a break and see the stick we’d stuck in the edge of the water submerged and the water another foot higher on the flat.  The fast rising waters renewed our resolve to keep on shoveling. Ice jams present a different kind of river engineering challenge.

When the floods hit southern Alberta, June 2013, my son sent a text “Sure glad our house is on a hill…and mom, how are we going to help?”  I text back “You work and send money son; I will go to Calgary and help.”