Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Flood evacuees feel forgotten

All quiet on the election front months after damaging deluge

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One week into the official election campaign and, so far, Manitoba's top three political leaders haven't uttered the F-word -- flood.

The biggest local news story just months ago has faded from the political debate as the leaders instead trade shots rather than deal with the elephant in the room -- whether an emergency $100-million channel being dug in the Interlake to drain Lake Manitoba will be finished on time and if it's enough to protect properties from future floods.

"We're just concerned about what we think is going to be a real foot-dragging episode with that channel digging," Dennis Turek of the Twin Beach Flood Action Committee said Friday.

"It's crucial that thing is finished by the end of October. If it's not, I don't know what's going to happen. We're going to be lost. The ones that are remaining are going to be lost."

The fear is if the channel isn't draining Lake Manitoba via Lake St. Martin, in less than two months, fall storms and winter lake ice will destroy more properties.

The three leaders are to address this year's flood, and their plans to prevent further floods, at a forum Monday in Brandon.

But Turek and others fear their plight has been mostly forgotten. Many homeowners, farmers and cottagers are still under mandatory evacuation order and won't be allowed to return until the lake freezes over. This summer, they've only been allowed temporary access.

Premier Greg Selinger said Friday the NDP does not want to make the flood a campaign issue. Ironically, recent polls say Selinger's prominence during the flood raised his polling numbers significantly.

"For us, it's not about making it a campaign issue," he told the Free Press. "It's about getting results and protecting people. We're continuing to build dikes, continuing to do wave-protection demonstration projects. We're building the... $100-million channel. We've got a compensation program, so we're following up on (that) at the administrative level.

"So, for us it's not about campaigning on it; it's about making sure that people get as much protection as possible, as fast as possible."

The province is also continuing to build dikes on Lake Winnipeg to protect lakeside communities in the south basin from crushing waves that blow up in late fall storms. Lake Winnipeg is about two feet higher than its regulated level of 715 feet above sea level.

The NDP is expected to offer more flood-prevention plans during the campaign, but declined to provide details Friday.

Meanwhile, Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen, while critical of the NDP's handling of flooding on Lake Manitoba in May and June, also declined to outline his party's plan to protect Manitobans from flood water. "We know it's a significant issue for a lot of Manitobans," McFadyen said. "We know there are still more than 1,000 people evacuated right now. There are hundreds of people who are dealing with significant damage to their property.

"What I will say is that it's a really important issue. We're going to be starting to address it in the early part of next week."

McFadyen has criticized the NDP because the government's most recent financial statements do not include the cost of fighting the flood. The province says preliminary forecasts show the cost of fighting the flood will be about $632 million, with the province footing $154 million and Ottawa the rest.

Only the Liberals outlined their plan on Friday in advance of the debate in Brandon.

Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard said he wants to create a $20-million fund to create more wetlands on agriculture land so there's less water running off fields into rivers during the spring melt. Farmers would be compensated for losing crop land.

"We're going to address a lack of a quality water-management system in the province," Gerrard said. "Under the Tories and the NDP there's been essentially a drain-only policy. What this has done is to increase dramatically the volumes of water coming off the land and increasing the flood potential."

He also said the Liberals would expand dam systems along Tobacco Creek. The Free Press reported recently that for the past 26 years, about 150 property owners near Deerwood in south-central Manitoba have built 50 small dams on the Manitoba Escarpment in an effort to prevent water from flowing off their properties.

The Liberals would also commit to a "zero net-loss" of wetlands.

Gerrard said he recognizes the Lake Winnipeg watershed extends across four provinces and several states but Manitoba must take the lead in water retention if it's to have any say in drainage policies in other jurisdictions.

"We have to lead by example," he said.


-- with files from Larry Kusch

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2011 A4

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