PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE -- High above this central Manitoba city in a military helicopter, the biggest dilemma of the 2011 flood fight becomes agonizingly clear.
The Portage Diversion, west of Portage la Prairie, is carrying more water from the Assiniboine River to Lake Manitoba than the artificial channel was designed to handle. Dikes on the Assiniboine east of Portage la Prairie also can't handle additional flows.
So, as a record Assiniboine flow heads toward town, heavy machinery is about to do what was unthinkable only days ago: Sacrifice the few to save the many.
The province plans to cut a hole in Provincial Road 331 at the Assiniboine oxbow known as Hoop and Holler Bend in a "controlled breakout" that could flood 150 homes and 225 square kilometres of open farmland.
To put off this move risks an uncontrolled spill that would flood 850 homes and 500 square kilometres of land, mostly in the rural municipalities of Cartier, St. François-Xavier and Headingley.
So the deliberate breach is going ahead. It isn't a case of "if" anymore, but "when," said Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, noting the water itself will determine the timing of the controlled breach.
"We'll decide (this) morning," a weary Selinger said Wednesday, after flying over the Assiniboine River, the Portage Diversion and Hoop and Holler Bend in a military helicopter with Prime Minster Stephen Harper. "We decided we didn't have to do it today, and that's good."
From the air, the Assiniboine doesn't look threatening at Hoop and Holler Bend. This was precisely why this site was picked; the province believes the breakout on the oxbow can be controlled, with the resulting flow limited to 2,000 to 6,000 cubic feet of water per second.
Further west, at the Portage Reservoir, which has become a massive lake, an aerial view shows how the floodwaters on the Assiniboine are split in two. On Wednesday, 29,600 cfs were funnelled into the Portage Diversion toward a swollen Lake Manitoba, which is also expanding southward. Another 19,000 cfs is headed east toward Winnipeg, the maximum amount the easternmost stretch of the Assiniboine can handle.
The Portage Diversion was designed to handle 25,000 cfs. Manitoba Water Stewardship plans to divert as much as 34,000 cfs into the channel and will delay the Hoop and Holler Bend cut until the diversion spills or a breach becomes imminent farther east along the Assiniboine.
"We're going to put as much water into the diversion as possible before we breach the dike," said Don Norquay, deputy minister of Manitoba Water Stewardship. "It ain't over yet."
At first, excavators will allow 1,000 cfs to flow through the Hoop and Holler cut and into the Elm River on its way to the La Salle River. Norquay expects the eventual "controlled outbreak" to be less than 6,000 cfs, but concedes there is no way to be certain of the flow.
Residents living below the inevitable breach are less confident about the provincial plan.
"Have they ever done anything like this before? The answer is no," said Jeff Connery, whose family of four lives south of Hoop and Holler Bend. On Wednesday, migrant workers from the family's vegetable farm helped the Connerys build a sandbag dike around their entire property, which sits on the Elm River.
"If they have to cut it, this place makes the most sense," said Beth Connery, referring to their neighbourhood. "But I don't really believe the water can be controlled."
Several kilometres downstream on the Elm River, near the town of Newton, Terry Carr was overseeing construction of a sandbag dike around his home. "I'm just a little skeptical of the whole (cut) idea," he said.
Selinger said he and Harper talked about compensating those who will be flooded out by the controlled breach, which remains a possibility today.
During a 38-minute helicopter flight, the prime minister and the premier got a bird's-eye view of the work being done by homeowners, farmers, volunteers and 1,166 Canadian soldiers to shore up dikes to protect homes and roads between Portage la Prairie and Brandon.
Said Harper: "You've basically got Lake Agassiz recreated every spring and it's really something to behold."
At a tour stop in Brandon, Harper said immediate compensation for flood-affected homeowners and farmers will be made through the Disaster Financial Assistance program. Ottawa and the province will work together on a long-term program to better protect communities along the Assiniboine River from flooding.
"Obviously, for those who have been affected or inconvenienced, our thoughts and prayers will be with them," Harper said.
"I know this is bad and it's affecting a lot of people, but if you look at the scale of the water and how much damage has actually been prevented by long-term mitigation measures in the past, it really is quite incredible when you look at the difference here and south of the border," he said, referring to widespread flooding on the Mississippi River.