Saturday, July 27, 2013

Mitigation Planning for Future Floods

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In late June 2013, six creeks in the town of Canmore flooded leaving a nasty mess. Most individual homes had flood insurance, those without had to pay out of pocket. There is a sense that – in the future – events like this should be avoided. So, acting in accordance with the zeitgeist of democratic politics, the municipal government of Canmore is claiming ownership on the unowned waterways and mountains of Canmore and creating a central plan to mitigate future disasters through mountain hydrology.

Councillor Vi Sandford was the only bureaucrat to vote against the plan, claiming that the land in question (and thus solution) belongs to the provincial government. Speaking of the area that flooded most heavily in Canmore, Sandford said: “The Cougar Creek issue is something we have inherited from other levels of government… We need to push this to the next level of government.” In other words, centralization of power and authority are more desirable. Also, $600,000 is a lot of money to spend on something so risky.
Councillor Hans Helder recognizes this problem. Despite voting for the plan, he “expressed concerns” over how $600,000 will be spent and what it will accomplish. “I fully support this scientific research, but again, the major players need to be at the table.” Who exactly are the major players? Municipal bureaucrats or individual property owners? Helder brought up a 2008 hydrology report on Cougar Creek that recommended $6.5 million in mitigations that the province and CP rail failed to finance. Clearly, the land-ownership is in question – does Cougar Creek belong to the provincial government or is it the responsibility of the Canmore municipality? Should CP rail contribute to maintaining this area since they have monopoly rights on the railroad that runs through it and thus a clear financial interest in the property?
Councillor Joanna McCallum insists that “we” are the government and that, “I think the people of Canmore would agree we need to take the lead in putting our town back together.” What this actually means is that a town bureaucrat picks a team of consultants from BGC Engineering that will manage the process. The municipality will also choose a panel of experts to oversee – that is, interfere with  – the work done by BGC. The project manager, Mathias Jacob, told the council that this is not a technical problem. “The good news is the problem is definitely solvable,” Jacob said. “The outcome in the end depends on this entire process.”
Well then, let’s discuss the entire process.  Is mountain hydrology the best means of mitigation? Canmore’s town council think it is. But without price signals how could they know? Prices are information surrogates that communicate preferences and scarcity. Prices arise when individuals voluntarily exchange with each other. The municipal government taxes and destroys this information exchanging process. If Canmore’s town council really want to serve the public, the property in question should be privatized. Or at the very least, the municipality can retain ownership but designate their organization to price signals by ending mandatory payments and abolishing their monopoly power.
If Canmore’s town council recognized the importance of private property, then they would relinquish control of these ecosystems – not to the provincial government – but the individual residents of Canmore. And how could private property owners mitigate future flooding while keeping in mind the dynamic balances in nature? For starters, mitigation plans would be more numerous and take on a variety of techniques. Price signals signify profit and loss – whether certain actions are using resources sustainably or not. Residents could form organizations for projects they are incapable of financing on their own – such as access to land in which no one owns but is influential for mountain hydrology. Private projects cannot pollute other private property, whereas the municipality can ignore these externalities.
The best means to avoiding flooding is to live somewhere where it almost never floods. The Rocky Mountains are not one of these areas. Experimental projects can be performed by those private property owners who wish transform their property to avoid the – seemingly – inevitable. There are inherent checks and balances built into the market that makes this process not only profitable, but sustainable. Currently, the municipality extorts $600,000 from individuals to finance their choice of capitalists. These capitalists do not own the land and thus can externalize mountain hydrology’s unintended consequences and long-term issues. In addition, mountain hydrology is the only plan whereas a free market would produce multiple plans and comes with a built-in mechanism to weed out the bad. If Canmore’s councilmen and women are genuinely trying to work in the best interests of the town, then they should look to solutions that reward individual autonomy and diminish monopoly and taxation.

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