Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bracing for the inevitable water overflow

Assiniboine River property owners waiting, worrying

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LAKE OF THE PRAIRIES, Man. -- Over the past two months, the province has allowed water to spill out of this artificial reservoir on the Assiniboine River to create room for a flood of snowmelt expected within weeks.

Better known to locals as the Shellmouth Reservoir, this 56-kilometre-long lake near the Saskatchewan border is one of two major tools Manitoba Water Stewardship uses to reduce the severity of flooding downstream on the Assiniboine River.

The Portage Diversion, just west of Portage la Prairie, can send about half the Assiniboine's spring flow into Lake Manitoba instead of allowing it to continue east to Winnipeg. Lake of the Prairies, meanwhile, can hold enough Assiniboine water to put 390,000 acres of flat land one foot below the surface.

The level of this reservoir will be drawn down another five feet by the middle of March to make room for the spring melt further upstream, Manitoba Water Stewardship executive director Steve Topping said Tuesday.

But some farmers and other property owners who live along the Assiniboine between the artificial lake and the Portage Diversion are planning on being flooded out regardless this spring.

That's because Lake of the Prairies is poised to spill over the top of the Shellmouth Dam for the 11th time since the $10.8-million barrier was completed 39 years ago.

Cliff Trinder, who raises cattle near the village of Millwood, says his land has been flooded out 12 times in the past five years alone, if you count summer and fall flooding events.

Trinder, Gene Nerbas and Rick Keay are three cattle and grain farmers who've been pushing the province to provide more compensation for Assiniboine River property owners located between the Shellmouth Dam and the mouth of the Qu'Appelle River at St. Lazare, where the Assiniboine widens.

Approximately 50 property owners -- including about 20 agricultural producers -- receive the brunt of the Shellmouth effect, Trinder claimed.

"We're sacrificed for the good of the province," he said, referring to the reservoir's role in not just flood protection, but as a recreational fishing lake and a provider of water for food-processing plants and potato farms downstream.

Trinder said there is no question of whether he will experience a spring flood.

"Water stewardship says there is 'potential' flooding on the Assiniboine River this spring? We've been flooded since June," he said, brandishing a photo, taken Tuesday, of fenceposts surrounded in ice.

Hundreds of kilometres downstream, other riverfront farmers are expecting to endure another season where they will not know whether they will produce a crop.

"The thing is this year, good or bad, we know there's going to be a lot of water," said a stoic Stan Cochrane, who farms grain, soybeans and corn along the Assiniboine north of Griswold. "The best season for us is an early melt and early crest so we can get it over with."

Residents who do not farm will also be affected. Further downstream on the Assiniboine, an extended family that was forced to flee their RM of Cornwallis homes due to a rare winter flood has the dubious distinction of being among the first to be told to evacuate this spring.

In December, Rae Gelineau, her husband, their twin toddlers and her parents -- who live next door -- spent several weeks away from their homes southeast of Brandon when the ice-jammed Assiniboine spilled its banks.

They returned after a cold snap finally allowed the river to freeze.

But Manitoba Water Stewardship has already told them to leave again before the spring breakup, as ice left behind from the December flood makes it impossible to protect against a spring deluge.

"You can't put sandbags on top of ice," Gelineau said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "It's been a tense three months, to say the least."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2011 A5

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