Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lake Manitoba swallows land

Property owners protect homes, lash province for water woes

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TWIN LAKES BEACH -- If abstract discussions about "wet cycles" and wind setups fail to drive home the scene along Lake Manitoba's southern shore, it's worth a visit to Carl Classen's backyard.

At the back of the cottage property sits a wall. Below the wall is water. Many metres of property that used to extend beyond the wall sit below the surface of Lake Manitoba, officially the province's third-largest body of water and unofficially on the move in all directions.

All across Lake Manitoba's southern rim, fully exposed to northern winds, cottagers and year-round residents are busy building sandbag dikes in a desperate -- and some fear fruitless -- effort to prevent future storms from destroying their properties.

Since 1961, when the province began regulating water levels on Lake Manitoba, the surface has fluctuated between 810 and 813.5 feet above sea level. If flood forecasters are correct this year, the lake will rise to 815.8 feet, the highest level since the 1955 flood, when an unregulated Lake Manitoba swelled up to 816.3 feet.

Property owners are planning for even higher water, as sustained winds from the north can drive up water levels in Lake Manitoba's southern basin, effectively amplifying the reach and erosive power of waves.

Classen believes the first big storm this summer will undermine the sand below the wall at the back of the cottage he's owned since 1980.

"Sometimes, we're optimistic," Classen said on a sunny Monday when the lake didn't seem as malevolent it can be during storms. "Sometimes, we're not so optimistic."

Like most of the roughly 400 property owners at Twin Lakes Beach, which sits on a spit of sand between Lake Manitoba and marshy Lake Francis, Classen is upset with the way Manitoba Water Stewardship has stewarded Lake Manitoba water.

On Monday, 32,900 cubic feet per second of water flowed into the lake via the Portage Diversion, which was designed to carry a maximum of 25,000 cfs away from the Assiniboine River.

More water arrived via Lake Manitoba's two largest tributaries: the Whitemud River, which flows in from the southwest and the Waterhen River, which drains Lake Winnipegosis to the northwest.

At the same time, no more than 18,000 cfs can leave Lake Manitoba through the Fairford River on its way through Lake St. Martin and the Dauphin River to Lake Winnipeg and ultimately Hudson Bay.

This simple arithmetic has Lake Manitoba property owners seething.

"If the government adds water and doesn't remove it, I think that's unfair," said Classen, who said he feels like kicking the provincial officials responsible for preventing the lake from being drained as quickly as possible. "Other people out here would like to strangle them."

The provincial government has taken notice of this sentiment. On Monday, Premier Greg Selinger dropped by for a visit and took in what he described as the "heavy exposure" along the rim of the lake.

Selinger promised short-term help in the form of cash to purchase material for sandbag dikes and 50 Manitoba Conservation officials to help build them. He also promised to create more flood-protection features throughout the Assiniboine River and Lake Manitoba watersheds.

"Long-term, we'll have to take a look at those permanent solutions. If this kind of water flow becomes the new normal, then you have to have infrastructure to support that," Selinger said.

A solution probably means more dams. It possibly means more diversions. It definitely demands hundreds of millions of dollars the province does not have.

Managing an entire watershed is not easy, especially when it comes to the Assiniboine River drainage basin, which stretches far into Saskatchewan and also includes a corner of North Dakota.

Classen, however, is not thinking on such a grandiose scale. He's thinking about the sand below the wall in his backyard -- and also about his 1,400-acre farm, which sits in the potential path of the flood water from the Hoop and Holler Bend cut.

"Worst comes to worst, we will lose both places."

New flood warnings

for Assiniboine

Flood warnings have been issued for the Assiniboine River at all points downstream of the Shellmouth Dam; streams and rivers in the Dauphin Lake Basin; streams and rivers east of the Duck Mountains; the Souris River from Melita and all downstream reaches; Pipestone Creek, all reaches; Oak Lake and Plum Lakes; Plum Creek to the Souris River (including the town of Souris); and the Qu'Appelle River in the St. Lazare area.

Water levels decreased in many western points on the Assiniboine River Monday, including at the Shellmouth Reservoir at St. Lazare and Sioux Valley.

Flows on the Assiniboine River crested in Brandon at 37,100 cubic feet per second. It is estimated that flows on the Assiniboine River at Brandon will be sustained above 20,000 cfs for approximately two weeks.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2011 A3

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