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Flood forecast already bad

Saturated ground could spell disastrous spring: experts

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The spring melt is still a winter away but the 2011 flood watch has already begun.

Swollen rivers, saturated soils and the possibility of a higher-than-normal snowfall due to a La Niña weather pattern are raising fears southern Manitoba could face significant flooding in four to six months.

"All of the indicators are indicating we could be in serious trouble," said Bob Stefaniuk, mayor of the Rural Municipality of Ritchot, home to 5,000 people on both sides of the Red River south of Winnipeg.

He said he's most concerned about the high moisture content of the soil, which means spring melting won't be absorbed and will run over land to the river instead.

"We're hoping for a mild winter with a minimum of snow and a slow melt," he said.

Jim August, CEO of The Forks Renewal Corp., is crossing his fingers for the same thing.

"We're going to monitor it very closely. It doesn't look good. Everybody is nervous about it," he said.

August said he has never seen the water so high so close to freeze-up and he's worried how that's going to impact operations at The Forks this winter.

"This is a whole new game for us. Our river walks and docks were under water for extended period nine times in the summer and fall," he said.

Manitoba's new senior flood forecaster, Phillip Mutulu, shares their concern.

"If the snowmelt is at just normal rate or above-normal rate, then there will be flooding. And if we have above-normal snowfall, combined with a fast melt of snow... that would spell a serious flooding problem," Mutulu said.

On Monday, the Red River at James Avenue was measured at 13.3 feet above normal winter ice levels -- the highest level for a Nov. 8 in 62 years of provincial record-keeping, he said.

The city's rivers have since dropped a bit since that crest -- the result of heavy rains from the late October weather bomb -- but are likely to remain abnormally high heading into freeze-up. Normally for this week, the river reading at the James Avenue pumping station is about a foot above normal winter ice levels, but we may not see The Forks walkway (roughly eight feet above James) before the cold weather sets in, Mutulu said.

The Red River watershed is soaking wet.

In southern Manitoba, farmers have just slogged their way through what Environment Canada's David Phillips calls "the wettest growing season on record." In parts of farm country, you can still see water standing on fields, many of which were too wet this year to produce a crop.

In western Manitoba, the Shellmouth Reservoir, built nearly four decades ago to reduce the risk of flooding along the Assiniboine River, including Winnipeg, is two metres higher than normal for this time of year. The province is releasing water from the reservoir so by spring it will be able to swallow some runoff from heavy storms.

Similar wet conditions also exist on the U.S. side of the border. Officials in both countries are now analyzing aerial photographs and soil samples to begin building their flood-forecast models.

Canadian and U.S. flood officials will meet in January to review the situation. "One of the things we are going to be discussing is preparedness for spring flooding," Mutulu said.

Manitoba's first flood forecast is expected in February.

Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada, said Winnipeg gets, on average, 22 per cent of its annual precipitation from snow.

And like Mutulu, he said it's not the amount of snow that will be critical but how quickly it melts next spring. While historically, La Niñas have tended to produce colder and snowier winters, they've become less predictable in recent years, Phillips said. Two of the last four La Niñas were warmer than normal, he said. The latest Environment Canada weather models for January to the end of March are in fact predicting near-normal to warmer temperatures for southern Manitoba and normal to slightly less than normal precipitation, he said.

Phillips said to minimize springtime flooding, ideally we would have a mild winter that would minimize ice buildup on rivers and streams along with temperatures that would produce a gradual spring melt.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

The perfect storm

Reasons to fear a springtime flood in 2011:

-- Soils throughout the Red River basin are saturated.

-- The Red River at James Avenue on Monday was 13.3 feet, the highest level for Nov. 8 in 62 years of record-keeping.

-- The Shellmouth Reservoir is two metres higher than normal for November.

-- A La Niña weather pattern is developing, meaning the winter could be colder and snowier than normal.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2010 A5

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