Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A tough choice, but the only one

Flood defences were about to be overwhelmed

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Premier Greg Selinger was set to fly to Ottawa last Sunday to hobnob with some of Manitoba's finest artists and performers. Prairie Scene, it was called.

But a different Prairie scene, a dangerous one, was developing on the swollen Assiniboine River, an hour's drive west of Winnipeg. By late afternoon, about the time he'd expected to be getting ready for a Randy Bachman/Fred Turner concert in Ottawa, Selinger was takin' care of business back home.

By 5 p.m., Selinger was on the phone with Prime Minister Stephen Harper asking for help from the military. Manitoba needed the Armed Forces to help shore up dikes along the Assiniboine between Portage la Prairie and Headingley.

Earlier Sunday, in the daily 11 a.m. flood war-room meeting in Water Stewardship Minister Christine Melnick's office at the legislative building, a couple of dozen tense and tired people had gathered. Melnick was there, as was Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton along with their staff, senior flood-fighters and senior officials from senior civil servants from the infrastructure, health and agriculture departments. Some of them had worked a month without a day off. A dozen more people joined by teleconference, including the premier, who was in Brandon.

In his daily reports to the group on river levels, Steve Topping, the province's senior flood-fighter, had been painting an increasingly disturbing picture. It was quickly becoming apparent that flow rates at Portage la Prairie could exceed the capacity of both the Portage Diversion, which diverts water to Lake Manitoba, and the river itself.

River levels at Brandon were very high. And there was bad news in the forecast -- more rain in the coming days for eastern Saskatchewan and western Manitoba.

Ashton, the affable cabinet minister from Thompson, had brought a big sign into his office that morning. "Keep Calm, Carry On," it read. As Topping continued his report, that advice got harder to follow. It was apparent the flood defences could be overwhelmed, and soon.

That's when provincial staff first broached the idea of punching a hole in the south dike at the Hoop and Holler Bend just east of Portage la Prairie. The only other choice -- no choice at all, really -- was to watch as an inevitable tide of water -- an estimated 15,000 cubic feet per second -- burst the dikes somewhere along the Assiniboine east of Portage.

A breach on the north bank would shoot water unchecked all the way to Headingley, potentially flooding the town. A breach to the south could swamp such towns as Sanford, La Salle and Starbuck.

"Nobody panicked," Ashton would later recall.

The group didn't make the decision right away to go ahead with the cut in the dike -- one that would flood 225 square kilometres of land. But they struck a team to work out how it could be done.

At the same time, other teams were assigned to work on plans to boost the capacity of the Portage Diversion and the river channel itself. Maybe those measures would make the dike cut unnecessary.

By Monday afternoon, one of the teams had a plan to expand the Portage Diversion's capacity to 34,000 cubic feet per second from 25,000. But it wouldn't be enough; it was raining out west. They would have to cut the dike.

Melnick and Ashton, with Selinger's approval, made the call at 5:30 Monday afternoon. Ashton announced the decision half an hour later at a rare 6 p.m. press briefing.

One hundred and fifty homes would be at risk of flooding due to the deliberate breach. But it could save as many as 850.

What the government didn't make clear that evening, and wished later it had, was that the 150 homes it appeared to be sacrificing would also have been at great risk from an uncontrolled river breach.

The planners, and the rest of us, too, will find out soon how it all works out. They're set to breach the dike this morning.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2011 A6

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