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Alberta announces $125M program to help municipalities deal with drought, floods

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Growing concerns over both drought and floods have led the province to announce a multi-million dollar program to help municipalities cope.

A total of $125 million will be spread evenly over the next five years for infrastructure projects that help municipalities handle drought and flood.

The new funding can be used for projects like berms, water storage or other infrastructure work. It comes as the province rolls out a swath of plans and programs to address expected water shortages.

“I had a lot of people checking in over the weekend to see how much this latest snowfall is going to help us. And unfortunately, it's still very, very dry, compared to typical years,” Rebecca Schulz, the minister of environment and protected areas of Alberta, said.

“So of course, we're hoping for more, but we can't bank on that we have to be prepared.”

Schulz said the Drought and Flood Protection Program (DFPP) will be application-based, with municipalities, improvement districts, special areas, Métis settlements and First Nations all eligible.

At this point, she said, Alberta is preparing for the risk of a severe drought this year and wants to develop strategies and infrastructure to maximize the province's long-term water supply.

But that doesn't mean any specific kind of project will be prioritized.

"Right now we're largely focused on drought here in Alberta. That's the topic we hear most about, but again, we know that in June there is still the risk of flooding, and we saw that last year and the year before that as well. So it's hard to say one will take precedence over the other," Schulz said.

Additional program details, including eligibility requirements, application deadlines and cost-sharing components, will be released when the program opens later this year.

Paul McLauchlin, the president of Rural Municipalities of Alberta, said he approves.

He said rural municipalities manage more than 85 per cent of Alberta's land mass, including areas that historically face drought and flood risks.

"Many have prioritized increased flood and drought monitoring, resilience and mitigation projects," he said.

"Because Alberta faces a hotter and drier future with increased occurrences of major storms, provincial support for local rural resiliency projects will become a more and more important investment in protecting rural communities, residents and industries."

Drought and flood protection plan faces criticism

Not everyone believes the DFPP will have the impact the province says it will.

Some experts are saying the plan should have been implemented sooner and it needs more funding to properly mitigate drought and flood damage.

“This certainly a very necessary funding announcement and I’m happy to hear that. However, I believe it’s too little too late and overall it’s just a drop in the bucket,” said Stefan Kienzle, a professor focussing on geography and water resources at the University of Lethbridge.

Kienzle feels that climate change will lead to more frequent droughts and floods which requires more action to properly mitigate.

“Looking at these major disasters and we have to expect more of that magnitude to come our way, a $125 million over five years is really not enough. It's a good start but we have to do way more than that," he said.

The DFPP doesn’t include any specific support for agriculture.

Farmers and producers in southern Alberta have been hit hard with years on end of drought.

“I had just seen it here this morning and I read it and it just seems like it’s more for cities and how to keep water and use it more efficiently but it didn’t really apply to agriculture. So I guess I am somewhat frustrated,” said Stephen Vandervalk, who farms near Fort MacLeod.

While infrastructure investments could have benefits for southern Alberta’s farmers, some believe the effective support they could get would be help with crop insurance.

“The best thing they could do to help farmers is either to beef up crop insurance, lower the premiums and do it that way. Then it's an even playing field for all farmers,” said Vandervalk.

The Opposition NDP's critic for Environment and Tourism said the United Conservative Party government needs to do more, including acknowledging the role climate change plays in extreme weather.

“The UCP’s piecemeal approach to projects means smaller communities with fewer resources for pitching projects may fall through the cracks," said Sarah Elmeligi.

"A better approach to the drought plan would be to emphasize regional co-operation, as drought issues never are limited to one community. In addition, this announcement doesn’t have a plan to enhance and expand natural wetlands, which is by far the cheapest and most effective way to mitigate drought."

Calgary on drought watch

Calgarians could be seeing outdoor water restrictions as early as the spring if the region doesn't see a significant amount of precipitation in the coming months, officials said Monday.

The City of Calgary is monitoring conditions in the Rocky Mountains, but officials say even with a recent snowstorm, residents could be seeing very dry conditions this spring and summer.

The city said if residents don't want to see any restrictions, they can take steps now to conserve all the water they can.

Some of the advice includes waiting until you have a full load of dishes in your dishwasher and washing machine before using them, switching off the tap when shaving or brushing your teeth and limiting your time in the shower.

Calgarians can also prepare their home for drought conditions such as adding mulch to gardens to prevent evaporation and setting up a rain barrel to capture rainwater.

With files from The Canadian Press’ Bill Graveland and CTV News Calgary’s Michael Franklin

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