Water Water Everywhere

In the wake of the Alberta floods, a much-needed history lesson

Most park supporters in Canada are aware of the double-edged sword of access and damage accruing to highway and railroad development in our first and most famous national park. Some of my own generation, however, might be startled by Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles’s reminder in Wilderness and Waterpower: How Banff National Park Became a Hydro-Electric Storage Reservoir that the production of hydroelectricity “was as much a factor in the history of Banff National Park as was the CPR.” If we are blasé about dams and reservoirs in Banff and region today, it is because they were built long before we arrived on the scene. Also, the human is an adaptable animal that can get used to almost any degradation over time. Armstrong and Nelles remind us that in the early 20th century, “the idea of what the park should be was as expansive as its territory.” Most Canadians of that era subscribed to the notion that a park should, first of all, be made useful to the public, and it is therefore surprising, and a compliment to the small band of conservationists of earlier days, that proposals to build hydro reservoirs in Banff were met with some stiff public resistance.1 They were countered by dam boosters who described ugly cracked mud flats in glowing terms as resembling “a bold seacoast at high tide.”

The authors pose a cheeky question for today’s environmentalists: “Now that these hydroelectric structures have largely outlived their usefulness, who would propose pulling them down? They have become, in a strange way, part of the nature to be preserved.” Given the contemporary focus on the environment and current debate about what constitutes wilderness and what is humans’ place in it (which they briefly touch upon), a scholarly study of how such developments came about is long overdue. This one is well researched and its cast of characters, including Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook), R.B. Bennett, J.B. Harkin, Ernest Manning and William Lyon McKenzie King, makes for a fascinating study for the park history buff and—given this year’s disastrous floods—for anybody interested in the cantankerous nature of the Bow River.

The authors, both professional historians, describe the chain of events that led to reservoirs and dams in the park as a case of “path dependence” where “choices in system design virtually determine downstream incremental change.” By way of example, the decision regarding what track gauge to use on a railroad is one that determines the course of events through time. “Canada,” they explain, “got the hydroelectric religion,” so our economic path was an aggressive dependence on hydro power for electricity. We excelled in that field and by 1910 we had built 960 waterpower sites nationally.

The city of Calgary, powered by a small low-head hydro dam and a coal-fired plant, had a burgeoning need for more power, and Max Aitken, “the impish wizard behind Royal Securities Corporation” of Montreal, along with fellow New Brunswicker (and later prime minister) R.B. Bennett, saw a stream of money waiting to be tapped at Horseshoe Falls west of Calgary. Aitken understood how money flows, but knew little about the flow of rivers. In 1909, his engineer warned him that the Bow River, a glacier-fed stream, had too variable a flow to supply the horsepower he had contracted to provide to the City of Calgary. Horseshoe Falls dam was completed in 1911 despite this warning. Five years later, C.H. Mitchell, Canada’s foremost hydraulic engineer, described the Bow as “unsuitable, inefficient, and commercially unfeasible for power purposes.” At the time, the dam, rated at 19,500 horsepower, could only produce one third of its capacity. More water at more cubic feet per second was needed, and to get it Calgary Power Company laid plans for a reservoir upstream at Kananaskis Falls and cast its eyes further west to Lake Minnewanka and the Spray Lakes above the coal-mining town of Canmore. Instead of opting to employ the region’s coal deposits for power generation, the developers would now have to “redesign” the river upstream from Calgary, a path-dependent decision that would have severe consequences for Banff National Park.2

At the heart of this book is a turf war, triggered by Calgary Power’s application to create a huge reservoir in the Spray Valley, divert water through a tunnel down to the Bow River Valley at Canmore and completely stop the flow of the Spray River, which enters the Bow River in Banff townsite just below the famous Banff Springs Hotel. The fight was on between “the animal spirits of industrial capitalism,” to use the authors’ term for the rapacious businessmen of those days, and a handful of colourful conservationists, who were aided and abetted by the powerful Canadian Pacific Railway, no less. It was a battle that inspired the formation of the National and Provincial Parks Association in 1923, “the first national lobby to decry the spoliation of wilderness preserves.”

The point man for the conservationists was J.B. Harkin, Canada’s first national park commissioner. Inside this mild-mannered bureaucrat (his nickname was Bunny), there was a calculating and determined mind. He openly encouraged the creation of the NPPA, which could lobby the politicians for park preservation. And he did his research. Fending off both the entrepreneurs and the federal Water Power Branch, he appealed to the public to protect the parks for both their sublime scenery and the revenue they brought into Canada, which was $15 million in 1921 alone for an outlay of $850,000. Harkin made mincemeat of the economic grounding for the Spray Lakes reservoir, which he showed as propping up plants that should never have been built in the first place. Instead of spending $4 million at Spray Lakes to capture another 7,500 horsepower, he suggested why not use the 30,000 horsepower-worth of natural gas being flared off and wasted annually at Turner Valley to generate power.

But the political forces arrayed against Harkin were as vast and immutable as his beloved mountains; they would prevail over all opposition in the Spray watershed and also at Lake Minnewanka. Ironically, Charles Stewart, minister of the Department of the Interior, decided that the only way to safeguard the park from industrial development was to “remove the lands … required for hydraulic storage out of the park system once and for all.” Under the new National Parks Act of 1930, 1,630 square kilometres were chopped out of the Spray watershed, along with hundreds of square kilometres in other drainages. It had cost Harkin and Canada dearly to get the parks preserved “unimpaired for … future generations.”

Armstrong and Nelles have written that the Bow River after hydro development is “an organic machine.” That implies that the Bow River is under human control, and, as the floods of 2013 have amply illustrated, nothing could be further from the truth. From June 19 to 22, 80 to 340 millimetres of water hit the watershed over a 48-hour period, and peak flows upstream of the Elbow River junction rose to 1,740 cubic metres per second. The flood caused 70,000 Calgarians to flee their homes, with provincial damage hovering around $4 billion. But writing in the Calgary Herald, Jerry Osborn, a geology professor at the University of Calgary, points out, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The worst floods in recorded history were probably 1879 and 1897, and high-water marks suggest 2,265 cubic metres per second for those monsters. There were no hydro dams on the Bow obstructing the flow back then. The worst-case scenario, in a 1979 study by Montreal Engineering imagines a flood of 6,145 cubic metres per second.

We know now that the power dams should not have been constructed, and we know also that much of Calgary should not have been built on a flood plain. Ultimately, the clear blue waters of the Bow River will turn to muddy brown once more, and we will discover yet again that our powers to redesign nature have limits that we cross at great peril.



1 Rocky Mountains (now Banff) National Park, founded in 1885, encompassed 110,250 square kilometres by 1902.  Today’s size is 6,641 square kilometres.

2 This proved to be a template for dam building in Alberta.  For example,  after the Oldman River Dam was  completed in 1991, a court-ordered environmental review panel recommended in 1992 that it should be immediately decommissioned so that the river flow would be unimpeded.