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Flood early warning system in works

The Town of Canmore is developing an early warning system for future floods and officials expect it to be in place before potential spring floods.

The Town of Canmore is developing an early warning system for future floods and officials expect it to be in place before potential spring floods.

The Torrent early warning system information, however, will only be available to municipal officials this year to prepare emergency response operations in the event of a flood.

Manager of engineering Andy Esarte, who is in charge of the Town’s flood recovery efforts, told council on Tuesday (Feb. 4) the early warning system can be developed by BGC Engineering as part of the overall short-term mitigation project currently underway at no extra cost.

“This system would build on and complement a number of other council approved initiatives that are currently underway,” Esarte said. “The end goal is to predict the probability of the occurrence of a debris flow and debris flood and try to get a sense of the magnitude.”

The warning system, however, does not involve putting equipment in the creek. It would use a number of data sets entered into a model based on an algorithm developed by BGC.

“The model takes pre-existing conditions and forecasts and develops the probability of debris floods and debris flows,” Esarte said, adding the model will provide useful information in advance of an event to allow the municipality to prepare emergency operations and communications.

He added the project would be sole-sourced through BGC and involve the University of British Columbia’s Geophysical Disaster Computational Fluid Dynamics Centre.

“As an event begins to unfold, our attention will be directed to it and there will be staff at UBC, BGC and the Town of Canmore paying attention to it,” he said. “We are well positioned with expertise through the mitigation program to come up with a tool to help us have a safer emergency response.”

Last June, Esarte said the municipality had no warning whatsoever that a debris flood or debris flow could occur on any of the mountain creeks in town.

“In fact, we didn’t even have those words in our vocabulary at the time to describe what happened,” he said. “Forecasters issued warnings focused on the Bow River and, based on previous experience in 2012, we began patrolling trouble spots on the river and creeks.

“As the event progressed through the night (June 19-20) it became apparent Cougar Creek was behaving unusually.”

Esarte said the first warning that evacuations might occur happened at 3 a.m. and as the event unfolded larger areas of the subdivision were evacuated and the creek began to compromise the culvert on Elk Run Boulevard.

“In the end, we were able to successfully evacuate (Cougar Creek) and save the culvert, however, this put emergency response crews and workers at risk.”

He said it is clear the situation can quickly spiral out of control when a debris flow or debris flood occurs and understanding the hazard as soon as possible is key to being prepared.

“We are not trying to predict floods – we will continue to rely on provincial forecasts,” Esarte said. “But a debris flow warning system fills a gap where that information doesn’t yet exist with current systems.”

The $14 million short-term mitigation project currently underway, he added, is expected to come in under budget and the warning system could be added to the scope. However, the provincial government has to approve the added scope as well because it is funding the majority of the project through the disaster recovery program. Council approved the motion to change the project scope unanimously.

BGC’s Mattias Jacob, who has been working with the municipality on understanding the hazards of the area’s mountain creeks, came up with the idea for the model.

“It will be a novel product based on the work he has done on Cougar Creek based on the frequency and magnitude relationships,” Esarte said. “It is a sole-source (project,) but arguably BGC is the only one able to provide it.

“It allows the science to happen instantaneously and in real time to provide us with data so we can make decisions in-house about how to respond to the probability of an event.”

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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