What to expect as City takes next step toward public beaches

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The hum at last week’s Urban Planning Committee meeting revealed a quiet excitement – the kind that secretly bubbles behind outward political composure. Sparking eyes all around the table hinted mischievously that mere committee formalities could do little to dissuade hearts already set on building public beaches along the North Saskatchewan River.

In the second order of business, administration tabled a report outlining the various regulatory permits and approvals required to build these beaches and the ensuing discussion inspired a subsequent request for a more complete feasibility study, due at the end of February.

Edmonton has a long history of exploring these kinds of projects, and on paper at least, the reports at hand are little more than a couple of small steps that will keep the discussion going into the new year. Indeed, the report presented last week was interpreted by some as a long list of obstacles that will inevitably sideline what is best left to the forces of nature.

The regulatory requirements certainly require a great deal of work and due diligence, but it should be noted that the list represents a very ordinary set of standard processes, almost all of which also apply to the ongoing construction of the Tawatinaw LRT bridge that formed Cloverdale Beach (also note thousands of projects ranging from hydroelectric dams to channel rerouting that have been approved despite much greater impacts to aquatic ecosystems). While building a beach is no public transit initiative, the notion of reshaping natural waterways to the benefit of swimming, paddling, or other recreational activities is nothing new under the sun.

Whitewater Kayaking on the Kananaskis River

Take for example, the whitewater racing course on the Kananaskis River in southern Alberta. The hydrology along the stretch below the Barrier Dam was dramatically engineered to created a variety of exciting whitewater features for kayaking, canoeing, rafting, and even surfing. More modest shoreline alterations were made on the Ottawa River to enhance public beaches and as others have highlighted, there is a natural public beach on the Milk River at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

The Elbow River in Calgary offers a number of swimming opportunities, and right here on our very own North Saskatchewan River, we already enjoy what are effectively permanent manmade beaches immediately downstream of the Laurier Park and Gold Bar Park boat launches (not to mention a sandy shoreline at Terwillegar and the glorious and expansive natural sandbar near Fort Edmonton Park, among others).

Building a beach can be done and has been done. The obstacles are far from insurmountable. As Councillor Walters put it, the various provincial and federal laws that govern these developments represent some of the most important legislation in Canada. They are in place to ensure that we undertake development responsibly and in a way that balances multiple interests while mitigating adverse effects – environmental effects in particular.

With the above in mind, the sparkle in the eyes of committee members certainly reflects the excitement that so many of us share, but perhaps it also reflects a determination to do the work that’s needed, and to do it well.

It’s a safe bet that the feasibility study will come back at the end of February with an extensive list of considerations and challenges. But the regulatory requirements themselves should not be seen as obstacles. A public beach on the North Saskatchewan River is feasible, and perhaps more than one. It is simply up to us to find the right way about it. Indeed, it is an opportunity to come together and imagine a community that truly thrives with the ebbs and flows of the river, and in turn, to imagine a river that truly thrives in the heart of our city. The river, after all, has always been the heart of Edmonton and it is time we share the love.


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