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Driving into the valley housing the little spit of land that is the tiny community of Lehigh, Alta., feels like entering another world. Wide-open prairie drops suddenly into a landscape more suited to a moon of Jupiter than a place of this earth.
The gravelly walls of the valley slope down from the high plains, hoodoos teeter off the highway and the entire landscape is tinted by the soft brown shade of the rounded hills. It feels closed in after driving along the wide expanses of this corner of southern Alberta.
The valley was shaped by the forces of climate and change: water cascaded from glacial lakes as the ice age slowly whimpered away. Carved channels were eaten away by rivers, ice, rain, snow and wind. The process left a deep and long scar.
Nestled in that valley, the town of Drumheller stretches along a floodplain encompassing several communities. There’s Nacmine to the west and East Coulee to the east. There’s the downtown and the little pockets of life, including Lehigh, a once bustling hamlet of coal miners and their families, now reduced to a smattering of homes spread out over a small, flat plain.
Each of these neighbourhoods hug the temperamental Red Deer River.
The area is prone to flooding and almost all of the inhabited areas are identified by the provincial government as flood zones. Drumheller was walloped in 2005 and again in 2013, but the recorded history of flooding dates back over a century. The situation is only expected to get more intense.
Climate projections show the area will face more extremes in the near future. Drier dry spells. Heavier and more intense rains. A warmer climate that can hold more water and dump it at will. Lehigh will inevitably face an inundation.
It’s not alone.
Whether it’s due to sea level rise or wildfires or land sliding into the sea as permafrost melts, communities across Canada — and the world — are grappling with similar problems: climate change has made areas once livable, even desirable, into danger zones.
Across Canada, flooding is considered the biggest climate change risk, consuming more than 75 per cent of federal disaster assistance, according to a 2020 policy brief from the non-partisan think tank Centre for International Governance Innovation.
According to the World Bank, as many as 216 million people could be forced to move within their own countries due to the impact of slow-but-steady changes as the climate shifts.
Approximately 18 of them live in Lehigh.
The local government is busy fortifying. The Town of Drumheller has $55 million mostly from the provincial and federal governments to spend on dykes and berms to protect the greater good.
But about $20 million of that funding has been allocated to buy out properties — or portions of them — and force many residents out of their homes. The government plans to wipe these communities off the map before the floodwaters do.
In Lehigh, the entire community will disappear.
Residents find themselves caught up by forces they can’t control, where questions of fairness, of equity or the subjective values of home and hope take a back seat to the pressures of climate adaptation, of billions in infrastructure and of government bureaucracy hell bent on keeping Alberta’s rivers at bay.
Many feel they are not getting a fair shake for their little plot of Alberta, or are being ignored as Drumheller races ahead to protect itself from the next flood.
“Expropriation is always a charged topic, because by definition it’s the compulsory acquisition of property,” says Eran Kaplinsky, a law professor at the University of Alberta and the research director at the Alberta Land Institute. “And it puts homeowners with a strong sense of place attachment in a difficult position.”
It’s easy to think, when driving through Alberta’s high plains, that land here is unending and open. But it’s a mirage. It is carved and it is claimed. The fencing, so small against the horizon, is everywhere. Pumpjacks dot the fields. Homes and barns are scattered across the landscape.
Each one of those homes marks out a patch of land as something unique. It is a place where someone built not just a home, but a vision for their future. Memory, connection and hope are all embedded there.
John Carls has lived his whole life in the Drumheller valley, looking after a campground for decades while his wife worked as a nurse at the hospital in town. He’s retired now, but his wife is still working. Nineteen years ago, they bought a home in Lehigh and settled in. It’s where Carls wanted to live out his days.
“Somebody come and tell you you got to get out of your house — it’s not good,” he says by phone. “You buy a house, you figure you’re there.”
“I’m 83 years old. It’s not the time to pack up and start moving.”
Lehigh is a small community of about 11 houses, on a patch of land that extends from Highway 10 to the Red Deer River. Tall cottonwood trees are flanked by sandy cliffs. Stretches of highway separate it from Drumheller proper and the slightly larger community of East Coulee where an old hotel and gas station sit vacant off the highway — signs of livelier times.
Carls says being forced to move means his wife will have to quit her job at the hospital. They can’t afford to buy a new place and the offers his neighbours have received for their homes don’t fill him with any hope that will change.
Plus, he says, he’s embittered with the way the whole flood mitigation process has played out. It boiled over at a meeting earlier this year where he “said a few words” that resulted in charges of uttering threats against a town employee. Those charges have since been dropped.
“I’m getting out of Drumheller altogether,” Carls says. “I’ll never live here [again] in my life. Terrible place. They just seem to be able to push people around whenever they feel like it.”
He plans to move to Barrhead, northwest of Edmonton, where his son lives.
For Carls, the central issue is that he doesn’t want to leave his home. He refused access for an appraisal and has told the town to talk to his expropriation lawyer — one he shares with several other residents of Lehigh.
For others, there is resentment at being forced to leave, but a grudging acceptance that climate mitigation is important and they’ll have to go. For them, fair pay for the land they leave behind is critical.
Penny Head moved to Lehigh in 2012, one year before floodwaters inundated her home. She and her husband moved to the area because they loved the valley and couldn’t afford other areas. She says her house, now clean and clearly upgraded, was “a shack, overgrown and horrible,” when they bought it.
“We bought here because the land had such potential,” Head tells The Narwhal while sitting at her kitchen table. “It’s beautiful in the summer, it looks like a park. It’s gorgeous.”
She too plans to leave the Drumheller area and has signed on with the same lawyer as Carls. Both say they feel they’ve been ignored by the town. But Head wonders where they will go and what they’ll be able to afford.
“We’ve put a fortune into this house,” Head says.
“Because this was our forever home, nothing’s been done cheap.”
There is no doubt that Lehigh floods. Even modest flood projections from the province show the area underwater. More extreme flooding, exacerbated by climate change, will certainly have an impact.
The town at first wanted to build a berm around Lehigh, just as it’s doing in other parts of the valley, but the cost far outweighed the benefits. The town also says the ground in Lehigh is too porous and water would just flow underneath any protective barrier anyway.
In a meeting room in the town hall, Darryl Drohomerski, chief administrative officer and head of the town’s flood mitigation office, sits in front of a map that stretches across one wall, showing the entire municipality and the flood risks it confronts.
“We’re looking at trying to make a more resilient community,” he says.
“It’s really mitigation plus adaptation due to climate. That’s really the part that Lehigh and other parts of the community fall under is the adaptation piece. We can’t protect it.”
Flood mapping by the province following the devastation of the 2013 events throughout southern Alberta showed Drumheller should prepare for floods with a metre or more water beyond earlier projections, Drohomerski says. In the 2013 flood, river waters raged through Lehigh at 1,370 cubic metres per second. New guidelines suggest the community should prepare for an even greater torrent in future floods, potentially up to 1,850 cubic metres per second.
“Some of those areas that were borderline before, now, would be under a couple feet of water minimum,” he explains of worst-case scenarios.
The town’s plan calls for a series of berms — both new and fortified older berms — stretching from east to west to form a protective barrier around many buildings and homes. But in the seemingly callous calculations of government, the province requires projects it funds to protect at least as much property value as the mitigation will cost.
Government reduces the calculation to a ratio. A berm that costs $1 million needs to protect $1 million worth of property — a ratio of at least one. When the numbers were crunched in 2014 for a Red Deer River Basin flood study, Lehigh had a ratio of 0.12.
It would cost more than $1.3 million to protect the community — more than the value of all the properties, the study concluded.
The town looked at other options, including dredging the river to make it deeper, widening the channel to allow more water to flow by or even raising houses. In all cases the process was expensive and wouldn’t work, according to Drohomerski.
That means residents can either take the offers to buy their properties, or go through expropriation, but one way or another, the town will clear the land.
Lehigh is just one small example of what’s known as managed retreat — moving homes and communities out of harm’s way as part of climate change adaptation.
Robert McLeman, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University who studies climate change impacts and migration, says it is an enormous issue that governments are just now starting to grapple with.
He points to Miami Beach as one example in the U.S. where the costs to relocate in the face of rising oceans are astronomical.
“You’re talking about tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars to relocate these folks,” McLeman says. “There isn’t enough money in the United States to do it properly.”
In the U.S. the federal government has already allocated billions of dollars for large-scale managed retreat programs to replace earlier piecemeal efforts at buying out individual properties.
Canada, with a smaller population and fewer large cities hugging its coastlines, doesn’t have to grapple with that same scale of disaster proofing, but it’s still an enormous problem that will impact northern communities, cities like Vancouver and Halifax and river valleys across the country, according to McLeman.
“These decisions are going to come up time and time again,” he says. “Nobody’s really ready for any of this, it’s just starting to dawn upon us just how big a scale we’re talking about.”
Just like in Lehigh, the cost-benefit analysis that drives these decisions for governments across North America and beyond is cold comfort to those with attachments to community. McLeman points to the debate about rebuilding in flood-prone New Orleans or balancing Indigenous connections to the land with alleviating environmental risk.
“To be successful, the people who are going to be relocated, or at risk of being relocated, need to be part of the planning process,” he says.
“If it’s just sort of imposed upon them, then everyone’s going to be unhappy. And there could be push back.”
Other homes throughout the Red Deer River valley will also be bought up and torn down, from the west to the east. Some properties will be carved up for berms that will cut through backyards or right against property lines. Some will be left without permanent protection, but won’t be bought out either. Old cottonwoods are already being cleared and new berms will start going up this summer.
Dawn James owns three lots in Lehigh without a home after it was destroyed by the 2005 floods. She says she and her husband, who currently live in Calgary, were finally in a place to start rebuilding and hoped to retire to the community.
She too is holding out for expropriation. She’s working with the same lawyer as Carls and Head and says the town has not been fair in the way it has dealt with residents.
“They’re not making it so you want to take their offer,” James says.
In mid-March, the town offered her $29,000 total for all three of her lots, an offer she scoffed at.
The town says it is basing its offer on the appraised value of the properties and residents are welcome to have their own appraisals done. If the residents’ appraisal is within five per cent of the town’s, the town will pay the higher price. Otherwise, a third party will be brought in.
Drohomerski points to the fact the province will only cover the assessed value of a home for a buyout, but says the town was able to negotiate the higher appraised value in this case. Costs above that are borne by the town exclusively.
The offers in Lehigh will continue through the summer, but it seems clear that process will drag out, at least for some.
James wants the town to pay market value for their homes and to also cover costs, including moving expenses. She can’t understand why the town would come in with low offers when expropriation could cost them more in fees and likely more in payouts to residents.
Kaplinsky, of the University of Alberta’s law department, says under expropriation, the owner would get market value — based on the value before it was reduced by, say, a municipality saying the homes would be razed. There could be compensation for expenses, improvements to your property or even a higher payout that would allow you to afford an equivalent property elsewhere. Legal fees would also be covered by the town.
“But if the value of the property is already low, because of the circumstances, the environmental risks, etc, then that is reflected in market value,” Kaplinsky says. “Because that has nothing to do with expropriation.”
What the process can’t really account for is the true value of the home to its owner.
“That may have fairness implications because maybe somebody else doesn’t want to buy my property, but I’m willing to live here,” he says. “In fact, this place is more valuable to me than it is for others. I have roots in the community, I have a history here.”
It’s why the process of flood-proofing the town isn’t just about scooping up properties and clearing the land, building berms and moving on. It’s about communication and building trust, something lacking for some residents in Drumheller.
“How do you trust them? It’s done, it’s not done, it’s this or it’s that,” James says. “We’re going to offer you a buck and a half for your life.”
The frustration between some residents of Lehigh with the town didn’t start with the buyouts. Head says they felt all but abandoned in the 2013 floods.
The residents that spoke with The Narwhal are frustrated and have lost trust in the town government. They say the communication has been poor and they feel consultations have amounted to the town telling them what has already been decided. It hasn’t built trust.
“There’s a saying here, that the town ends at Wal-Mart,” James says, referring to the mega retailer not far from Drumheller’s core. The small community of Lehigh, on the fringe of the town, feels like an afterthought.
James went so far as to help with a petition that was submitted in June 2021, and ended up with approximately 2,300 signatures collected from around Drumheller, asking the province to investigate the flood mitigation office through what’s known as a municipal inspection. The province reviewed the complaints, but stopped short of a serious knuckle-rapping.
“While the review noted some inconsistencies with respect to communication and transparency of the town’s flood mitigation project, the remaining concerns are not of sufficient severity to warrant an inspection,” Alberta’s Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIver wrote to Drumheller Mayor Heather Colberg in response to the petition. (Spokespeople for Alberta Environment and Parks and Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIver did not respond to requests from The Narwhal.)
In a separate letter to former mayor Paul Ainscough, who had concerns about the handling of the project, McIver encouraged him to work with the town council to “find acceptable solutions to any remaining concerns.”
Drohomerski feels the town has done a good job of reaching out to residents and contends there’s a lot of misinformation spreading.
Neither Head, James or Carls agree, nor do they feel communication has improved.
Hana Ambury, a researcher with the Alberta Land Institute, which works to inform public debate and decision making around land use in the province, and of which Kaplinsky is also the director of research, says municipalities are starting to realize they have to clearly communicate environmental risks to residents to prevent confusion and frustration in the future, but that doesn’t necessarily help those already living in a disaster-prone community.
“In our research, we’ve seen that those people who are attached to their communities, who are attached to their homes, often have a lower rate of accepting mitigation and transformative action on the landscape,” she says.
“So, for example, in Fort McMurray, we’ve seen that people don’t want the trees around their homes cut down, even though that will reduce their wildfire risk, because that’s not why they bought their homes.”
The residents of Lehigh, like those of Fort McMurray, are left with new risks brought to bear on old communities and new rules that leave them with little choice but to leave.
The Drumheller valley has changed over the years. The coal mine closed in 1984, one year before the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology opened. Now the town is eyeing a future based more on tourists and dinosaurs than on resources past.
The first new berms will start rising this summer, Drohomerski says, and he hopes seeing some of that work in real life will start removing some of the skepticism in town.
The town centre, with its new recreation facility just down from the giant Tyrannosaurus Rex, will be safe behind a new flood barrier and river views for many will transform into a mound of earth several metres tall. The flooding will be held at bay.
In Lehigh, however, the small community’s history will come to an end. Homes will be torn down by 2024, according to government plans. The spit of land that was Lehigh will inevitably flood again, with only the cottonwoods to impede the flow. Head will live elsewhere, probably on a property she owns on Pine Lake southeast of Red Deer, if she gets enough money to build. James will find another place to retire. Carls is off to Barrhead.
“What they don’t understand is we’re a community, very much. We all know each other and most of us are friends,” Head says.
“I was looking forward to them building there,” she says, pointing to their empty lot across the way where James was planning to build. “We could sit out and have a glass of wine [with James] in the evening or something. You know, but all that’s gone.”
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