BRANDON -- Manitoba's second-largest city is preparing for its worst flood fight since 1976, when the Assiniboine River spilled over its meandering banks in an attempt to carve a straighter path to Winnipeg.
Construction crews in Brandon are working around the clock, sometimes with the aid of floodlights, to raise five kilometres of dikes within the city before the Assiniboine breaks up in early April.
City council ordered the $2-million job, which began late last week, after provincial flood forecasters determined the Assiniboine could rise three feet higher than it did in record-setting 1976, at least under a worst-case March weather scenario.
A more likely outcome would be a flood akin to the less severe deluge endured by Brandon in 1995.
But even the one-in-10 prospect of a record flood has forced the city to raise its riverfront dikes to ensure more than 1,000 residents and dozens of commercial properties in the river valley are protected.
Rather than use temporary measures such as sandbags, Brandon is moving earth to create a permanent new barrier. This means the city will not be eligible for an automatic rebate under provincial disaster assistance rules.
The rush job also forced the city to drain its flood-control reserves and potentially put off making $1 million worth of other infrastructure upgrades.
"We can't let that be a barrier. We have to get this going, now," newly elected Mayor Shari Decter Hirst said Monday in an interview.
"If the province wants to help ease the pain, we would welcome that."
For a city of approximately 45,000, $2 million is no trifle. Brandon's entire infrastructure-spending tab for 2011 is $39 million, said acting city manager Ted Snure.
Along the south side of the Assiniboine, 3.4 kilometres of higher dikes will protect 1,200 residents as well as commercial properties that would otherwise be inundated, said Brian Kayes, Brandon's emergency management director.
On the north side of the river, another 1.6-kilometre dike raise will protect "a few hundred more" residents as well as the Corral Centre, a 430,000-square-foot big-box development managed by Winnipeg's Shindico.
The decision to allow development to proceed in the flood plain probably didn't seem so risky during the late '80s and early '90s, when southern Manitoba went through a dry phase, Decter Hirst said.
But development has actually taken place within Brandon's flood zone for many decades. Some homes were built on the south side of the river in the 1920s -- but later razed after repeated inundations, Kayes said.
More homes were added north of the river, along Kirkcaldy Drive, during the postwar period.
Al Vickers moved into his riverfront home in 1993, just in time to watch the 1995 flood seep up to the edge of the sandbags on his property.
"Having seen '95, you appreciate how quickly it can come up," he said of the Assiniboine. "You don't take anything for granted.
Flooding in Brandon is more common than other Manitobans realize, Kayes said.
"The perception is it's infrequent. But we deal with some kind of river flooding three out of every 10 years," he said.
This year is decidedly different. Brandon has an evacuation plan in place for low-lying areas in the event the spring melt occurs far ahead of schedule, before the new dike is complete, Decter Hirst said.