The proposed Springbank reservoir has cleared another major hurdle, allowing the off-stream reservoir project west of Calgary to move significantly closer to realization.
On Thursday, federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said he had approved the project in light of a report issued by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada.
"[My decision] was informed by a robust federal environmental assessment based on sound science and Indigenous knowledge," Wilkinson said in a release.
"I am confident the strong, legally-binding conditions established for the project will safeguard the environment for years to come, and also ensure Albertans can be protected from future flooding events."
The project, to be built near Springbank, would redirect water from the Elbow River into a dry reservoir should extreme flood events occur.
It is intended to protect Calgarians and residents of nearby communities from significant flood events, like the one that took place in 2013. That event killed five people, flooded downtown, caused billions of dollars in damage and forced tens of thousands to flee.
Brenda Leeds Binder with the Calgary River Communities Action Group said the decision from the federal minister was a "very positive decision" — the last large regulatory decision the association was looking for, even if some hurdles remain.
"I think that by all indications, this project should be moving ahead," she said. "Hopefully by 2023 or 2024, we will see Calgary fully protected on the Elbow River from a flood the size of the 2013 flood."
The project has also faced significant pushback from nearby landowners, who have advocated for alternative locations for the dam.
Karin Hunter, president of the Springbank Community Association, said her organization was disappointed that other projects had not received further consideration — projects that she said would have provided superior flood mitigation and environmental protections.
"Fundamentally, it's just not a good project," she said. "The immense political pressure for SR1 has really been overwhelming."
The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada initially said in January the proposed dam would not pose any significant harmful impact to the environment, adding it shouldn't impact socioeconomic conditions of First Nations in the region.
Thursday's decision stated that Alberta Transportation must comply with more than 200 legally-binding conditions throughout the life of the project, including measures to protect:
Fish and fish habitat.
Indigenous peoples' use of land and resources.
Physical and cultural heritage.
Species at risk.
For example, prior to construction and in consultation with Indigenous groups, Alberta Transportation must finalize a fish and fish habitat offsetting plan, the ministry said.
To prevent bank erosion, Alberta must also install and maintain sediment fences and turbidity barriers, connected to a risk flagged in various reports and by landowners.
Hunter said her organization was very interested to read more about the 200 conditions announced by the federal government to see if they addressed the group's concerns adequately.
The ministry said the agency will enforce the conditions listed before construction, during construction and throughout the life of the project.
It is a violation of federal law to not comply with the conditions as stated.
The provincial government can now proceed with obtaining additional outstanding authorizations and permits, including authorizations from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and from Transport Canada.
Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer, who is also the MLA for Calgary-Elbow, said it was great news to see the project move forward after "eight long years."
"Springbank is critical to ensuring that homes and the environment are protected from flooding. It's good news for Calgary and it's good news for Alberta," he said in a statement.
Representatives with Alberta Transportation were not available to immediately provide comment, citing Thursday's provincial cabinet shuffle.