Finding your flow with the new and improved Alberta Rivers App

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The Alberta Rivers mobile app provides detailed information on river flows, river and lake levels, precipitation, snowpack and ice conditions across the province.

Information on current and future conditions helps Albertans make decisions related to water supply, flood mitigation, and emergency response planning.

So what’s new?

The app was recently upgraded to provide information on low flow conditions and water shortage advisories. This is so that water users can make informed decisions around water withdrawal if there are potential shortages.

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Know the risks: understanding flood advisories, watches and warnings

If you are in an area with a flood watch or warning, you should monitor Alberta Emergency Alerts and your local municipality website, radio station, or Twitter handle for updates.

Alberta’s river forecasting system has three main alert levels. Understand what each level means and the steps you can take to stay safe.

HIGH STREAMFLOW ADVISORIES

What they mean: stream levels are rising or are expected to rise rapidly. No major flooding is expected but minor flooding in low-lying areas is possible.

What you should do:

  • Use caution around riverbanks and water bodies.
  • Monitor Alberta Emergency Alerts for updates – depending on how the weather changes and other conditions, the advisory may end or it may be upgraded to a flood watch. You can also download the Emergency Alerts app and the Alberta Rivers app (currently for Android only) to get advisory info sent directly to your phone.
  • Make sure you have taken steps for general flood preparedness. If possible, put together a 72-hour emergency preparedness kit, if you don’t already have one.

FLOOD WATCHES

What they mean: stream levels are rising and will approach or exceed the bank. Flooding of adjacent areas may occur.

What you should do:

  • Stay out of affected water bodies and avoid riverbanks – water levels can rise quickly.
  • Monitor Alberta Emergency Alerts and updates from your local municipality. Although a flood watch does not necessarily mean flooding will occur, it should be taken seriously. Depending on the situation, your local government may recommend steps you can take to minimize damage from high water levels.

 FLOOD WARNINGS 

What they mean: rising stream levels will result in flooding of adjacent areas. There is a high likelihood that overland flooding will occur.

What you should do:

  • Avoid riverbanks. Do not attempt to cross or drive over flowing water – floodwaters can erode roads and make the ground slippery. As little as 15 cm of moving water can knock you off your feet
  • Take steps to prepare your home for a flood. These may include:
  • Securing your emergency preparedness and/or evacuation kits
  • Turning off electrical and gas appliances
  • Moving furniture in your home to higher levels
  • Storing extra water in clear containers and stocking up on non-perishable food
  • Filling your vehicle’s tank with gas
  • Making sure you can easily exit your home in case of evacuation
  • Monitor updates from your local municipality. If evacuation is recommended or required, leave the area immediately following the instructions you are given.

 GETTING PREPARED: PREPPING FOR A FLOOD BEFORE IT HAPPENS

Getting Ready for Flooding (This PDF has steps for making a flood plan, putting together an emergency preparedness kit, preparing your house for flooding, and safe evacuation)

 

Alberta’s river forecasting info in the palm of your hand? There’s an app for that.

At last month’s flood mitigation symposium in Calgary, we announced a new river information tool that made quite the splash. It’s our Alberta Rivers app – download it for Android here,or check out its features:

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Get the most current advisory info in real time

The app’s main screen will give you a map of the province, broken into its major river basins. Any advisories in effect will be shown on the map itself, as well as at the bottom of the screen.

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You’ll also be able to see the Forecaster’s Comments, which give some insight into how we’re interpreting the current data. And because the app will be updated several times every hour, you’ll know that you always have the most recent information available.

Get notifications sent directly to your homescreen

Want updates without having the app open 24/7? No problem. The app will automatically send ‘push’ notifications for advisories and forecaster comments directly to your phone’s homescreen.

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View river forecast data from anywhere in the province

If you’re interested in the data behind our advisories, we’ve got you covered. You can use the app to view the major types of data that influence river forecasting: snow, rainfall, and water levels. Specifically, you can:

  • View only one of these types of data at a time, a combination, or all three together;
  • Choose between viewing data for the whole province and zooming in on a particular station;
  • View the most current data for that station – or compare it with graphs showing weekly and yearly measurements; and
  • Add stations to your ‘MyStations’ favourites list, so you can access  as soon as the app is launched, without wading through other data

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Get it free for Android – Apple coming soon

Sound good? The app is available as a free download for Android – get it here. An iOS version for iPhone and iPad is on its way – it will be available in June.

Does snowpack predict flooding? The answer might surprise you.

Sometimes spring comes early, and sometimes it’s late – but one thing is always true: it’s wet. Depending on the amount of spring melt we have to contend with and where you live in the province, you might have to slosh your way through melting snow and ice for weeks.

This is the time at which many Albertans become concerned about the risk of summer flooding in their communities, particularly if the winter has been particularly long and snowy. It’s important to remember that in southern Alberta, mountain snowpack is not a major cause of flooding. It plays a part – as do existing water levels and the condition of the soil – but the biggest factor determining summer flood risk is rainfall – how much we get, how much falls in short periods, and where in the province it falls.

Photo of a distant rainstorm

Rainfall is the biggest contributing factor to summer flooding. Photo credit: Tom Stefanac

But even though it’s not the main cause of flooding, snowpack can impact  how severe the flood can be . As you can probably guess, runoff from melting snow contributes to rising water levels. But snowpack can also prevent the rain water from being absorbed by the ground – which can also contribute to flooding.

Because of these factors, our river forecasters have to take snowpack into account when they make their predictions (check out this blog post to learn more about how that’s done). To do this, they have to look at two different types of snowpack – mountain and plains.

Location, location, location

Mountain snow and plains snow behave in different ways. Snow on the plains melts quickly in the spring and disappears rapidly. As it melts, it may cause temporary ‘ponds’ to form or cause minor flooding of small streams. But this melting doesn’t usually have a big impact on larger rivers – which are the source of most major flooding.

In contrast, mountain snowpack typically melts at a slower pace, and keeps melting well into the summer. This is for one simple reason: it’s generally much colder up there than it is down on the plains. As a result of this slow melting, mountain snowpack’s not usually a primary cause of flooding.

Photo of snowpack monitoring

We measure snowpack by hand wherever we can – which can mean trekking into some pretty remote areas.

Because plains and mountain snowpack are different, it’s important for us to monitor snowpack throughout the province – even in places that are really remote. A lot of data comes to us electronically, from monitoring stations that monitor snow conditions and send their data to us via satellite. But snow surveying by hand often gives us a better estimate, just because it gives us the ability to measure more spots in a given area. All of Alberta’s plains snowpack information – and as much of the mountain snowpack information as possible – is gathered by hand.

Using the data – and keeping up with the results

Once we’ve got the data, it becomes one of many variables river forecasters use to assess potential flood risk. You can see some of the maps and data used by the forecasters here. (There’s different data for river basins,mountain and plains snowpack, and precipitation levels in different parts of the province)

Based on analysis of this data, our river forecasting centre issues:

  • river breakup and spring runoff advisories, throughout the spring
  • high water level alerts and flood watches, throughout the spring and summer

You can keep up with these advisories on our website, and they are also broadcast through Alberta Emergency Alerts – you can subscribe by emailFacebook or Twitter.

Photo of manual snowpack monitoring

Alberta flood hazard studies: what changes after a flood?

When flooding strikes, water levels can change drastically in just hours or even minutes. Given this volatility, you might wonder: does the information we use to map flood hazards change constantly as well?

Flood hazard area diagram

Flood hazard studies give us visual information about floodways and flood fringes

What are flood hazard studies?

Flood hazard studies are long-term planning tools. They synthesize a lot of different information to help us forecast how the landscape around water bodies may be impacted by flooding, and assist surrounding communities with appropriate development.

Hazard studies use water level data that has a 1% chance of occurring annually (that’s why you might have heard a lot recently about “one in 100 year flooding).

Hazard studies are location specific. They focus on a single river, but may also include data on smaller rivers within the area being studied.

Flood hazard studies and river forecasting – what’s the relationship?

Our river forecasters use current water level data from monitoring stations to forecast rising and falling river levels. In contrast, flood hazard studies incorporate data about both a river and the surrounding topography.

Flood hazard studies and river forecasting work together to help us determine flood risk. Whereas forecasting helps us anticipate potential water levels, flood hazard studies help us anticipate the effect a flood might have on flood hazard areas of the surrounding landscape.

When are they updated? FloodHazardArea-Diagram1-PLAN

Water levels change all the time, and river forecast information is updated continuously. But because topographical information tends to remain pretty constant, flood hazard studies are relevant for long periods of time – there’s typically no need to update them unless the river or the landscape surrounding it changes significantly.

Of course, such change is possible. One major reason for this is new development around water bodies. If a new bridge is built to cross a river, for example, this might have an impact on the area’s flood hazard map. In a case like this, ESRD would be alerted of the changing conditions, and part or all of the hazard study area would be reviewed as necessary.

We’ve been producing flood hazard studies in Alberta since the 1970s – but many of the studies we currently use were produced in the 1990s as part of the Canada-Alberta Flood Damage Reduction Program. To supplement these studies, ESRD continues to produce studies through our Flood Hazard Identification Program. All of our studies are searchable by community, stream, and basin.

What happens now?

After a major flood, the province collects extensive information about the extent of the flood in order to evaluate flood hazard studies that have been impacted. We want our evaluation to reflect the best possible understanding of what has happened – ground and aerial surveys, river flow information, and other data may all be used to enhance this understanding. This process helps us learn from what has happened – so that we can be as ready for the future as possible.

How does the ESRD River Forecast Centre respond to a flood?

In an emergency, nothing is more important than good information. Knowing what’s happening and what to expect helps first responders take the best possible course of action – possibly saving lives. But where does this information come from – and how does it get to the right people?

Aerial photo of Bowness Park in Calgary after the summer 2013 floods

Flood waters can quickly and drastically change the landscape; to respond to these changes, we need good information.

As we’ve discussed previously, Alberta’s River Forecast Centre uses a variety of data – including rainfall, water levels, snowpack, soil moisture, and historical data – to develop short term forecasts that tell municipalities when and where flooding is likely to occur. This information comes from several sources, including Alberta’s Fire Weather Office, the Water Survey of Canada, and of course, the centre itself. The centre issues advisories, watches, and warnings accordingly – and municipalities use that information to prepare for potential flooding.

But what about during a flood – how does the role of the centre change once the waters have already risen? As you might expect, things get pretty intense. Here, our staff explain the process in their own words:

Some highlights from the video:

  • When flood watches and warnings kick in, the information is sent not just to the Alberta Emergency Alert System, but to the affected municipalities – so they can share this information with their emergency personnel and start planning as soon as possible.
  • When significant rainfall is in the forecast, 24/7 operations go into effect at the centre, engaging a number of teams throughout the province. Everyone – from monitoring staff and data analysis teams to IT personnel – works full-tilt to make sure updated information is available as quickly as possible.
  • As conditions change – rivers peak, and rain subsides or continues to fall – the centre continues measuring and updating forecasts. This can get complicated: rising flood waters can wash gauges away from riverbanks, rendering data gathering stations useless. When this happens, ESRD sends monitoring teams out to record water level information in person – ensuring that forecasts are made with the most up-to-date data available.
  • Updated forecasts are provided throughout the flooding event – municipalities are notified when the flooding river peaks and when the waters begin to recede. This helps first responders to time their efforts appropriately.

Although this information is crucial, it doesn’t generate effective flood response on its own – we need first responders and emergency teams to do that. As we saw this summer, municipalities and emergency personnel are on the frontlines of flood response – but when the situation is severe, Alberta’s Environment Support and Emergency Response Team (ASERT) jumps in to assist. Check back next week for a first-hand account of ASERT’s response to the southern Alberta floods.

Flood preparedness with Alberta’s River Forecast Centre

May 5-11 is Emergency Preparedness Week, a national awareness initiative to encourage Canadians to take three steps to become better prepared in the event of an emergency:

  • Know the risks in your region
  • Make a family emergency plan and practice it
  • Prepare an emergency kit for your home and vehicle

At ESRD, our River Forecast Centre also takes steps to prepare for emergencies.

In the spring, heavy rains can cause river levels to rise quickly, and in some cases spill their banks.  The potential for spring flooding in Alberta depends on four factors – soil moisture, snowpack, temperatures and rainfall, with rainfall being the main driver.

Many municipalities, emergency responders and Albertans rely on the work of the River Forecast Centre to assess current river conditions and develop short-term forecasts based on data analysis and weather forecasts.  Current and historical data allow forecasters to predict potential flood locations, when flooding may occur, and when the river will peak.

Emergency Alerts

When conditions show a cause for concern, the centre will issue a high streamflow advisory, flood watch or flood warning through the Alberta Emergency Alert System and on ESRD’s website.

High Streamflow Advisory: stream levels are rising or expected to rise rapidly and no major flooding is expected. Minor flooding in low-lying areas is possible. Anyone situated close to the streams affected is advised to be cautious of the rising levels.

Flood Watch: stream levels are rising and will approach or may exceed bank. Flooding of areas adjacent to these streams may occur. Anyone situated close to the river is advised to take appropriate precautionary measures.

Flood Warnings: rising stream levels will result in flooding of areas adjacent to the streams affected. Anyone situated close to the river should take appropriate measures to avoid flood damage.

Emergency preparedness

Logo_EmergPrep_72HoursDuring a flood, local municipalities lead the emergency response and provide local residents the directions they need to follow to stay safe. Emergency response agencies provide additional on-site support.

Residents can stay informed through local media and the Alberta Emergency Alert System. You can also sign up for alerts through RSS feeds, Facebook and Twitter.

Don’t forget to prepare a flood plan and emergency kit. Use these tips to protect your family and home from a flood.

In addition to monitoring conditions, ESRD also works with municipal partners to ensure they are adequately prepared and have the capability to respond to a major event. This is done through training and by conducting emergency exercises to test their ability to respond.

Flood Hazard Identification Program

Flood damage can represent one of the largest expenses for disaster assistance programs. Identifying and mapping areas susceptible to flooding is one of the most effective ways of reducing flood damages over the long-term.  In Alberta, this is done through the Flood Hazard Identification Program.  These flood hazard studies are used for development planning by all levels of government, including local municipalities.

Flooding is a very real possibility along any of Alberta’s rivers and streams given the right conditions. In planning, preparing and responding to flood events, ESRD provides technical advice and expertise to emergency responders to support them in assisting Albertans.

By being prepared and working together, we hope to keep everyone safe during the transition from winter to spring and summer.

River ice forecasters prepare for spring thaw

Photo of the Athabasca River taken during an observation flight

Aerial view of the Athabasca River during spring melt

After a long winter, rejoicing in the first signs of spring – migrating birds, melting snow packs and breaking river ice – is a right of passage for many Albertans.

For Alberta’s river hydrologists and ice engineers, this is the launch of busy season at the River Forecast Centre.

These specialists carefully monitor river conditions to assess how water flows, weather, and snowmelt affect the receding ice covers. Real time data is collected from more than 130 river level gauges across the province.

Photo of an airplane used for aerial tours

Aerial tours are done to observe conditions along the rivers

Aerial and on-ground observations provide an overall assessment to supplement river level gauges and remote sensing information. Forecasters then compile this information with historical data to project the risk of ice jams and flooding along the rivers.

In most cases, nature runs its course, but the Peace River and the Athabasca River have an increased risk of ice-related flooding.

The Peace River is actively monitored, from freeze-up in the fall to breakup in the spring, due to increased winter flows from the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority (BC Hydro) facilities upstream. The Alberta government has an agreement with BC Hydro to jointly monitor these flows and reduce outputs when necessary.

Photo of the Athabasca River observation map

Red dots on the observation map indicate data collection points

Fort McMurray’s location at the juncture of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers put it at an increased risk. In this case, we depend on Mother Nature’s timing. The Athabasca must break up first in order to accommodate the increased flows from the melted Clearwater. If this isn’t timed right, ice jams could form at the juncture causing flood waters to back up into the town.

To prepare for potential flooding events, the River Forecast Centre deploys on-the-ground field observers prior to ice breakup to monitor the situation daily and relay information to the affected municipalities, emergency personnel and the public.

Although the river ice appears to be receding normally and this year’s outlook is positive, a number of procedures are in place should conditions change.

Emergency response

Photo of the ASERT response team during a briefing

ASERT response team getting an emergency briefing

Depending on the severity of ice conditions, an Emergency Operations Centre will be deployed to coordinate the efforts of emergency response groups such as Alberta Environment Support and Emergency Response Team (ASERT), Alberta Emergency Management Authority (AEMA), and local responders.

During a flood, local municipalities lead the emergency response and direct the actions local residents need to take to stay safe. Emergency response agencies provide additional on-site support.

Residents are kept informed through local media and the Alberta Emergency Alert system. You can also sign up for alerts through email, Facebook and Twitter.

River ice reports and forecaster observations are also available online.

Emergency preparedness

In addition to monitoring conditions, we also work with our municipal partners to ensure they are adequately prepared and have the capability to respond to a major event. This is done through training and by conducting emergency exercises to test their ability to respond.

By being prepared and working together, we hope to keep everyone safe during the transition from winter to summer.