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Ministry washed out in fallout from flood

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Did the 2011 flood have anything to do with last month's gutting of Manitoba Water Stewardship?

A Jan. 13 memo to staff announced Manitoba Water Stewardship is no more. Its environmental functions, such as water quality and fisheries, have been transferred to Manitoba Conservation. Its flood-fighting functions have moved to Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation (MIT).

Manitoba Water Stewardship was always a bit of an anomaly. The Doer government handed water a separate ministry to give water issues more power and primacy within government. Christine Melnick, former minister of Water Stewardship before the recent cabinet shuffle, used to boast she was the only water minister in the country.

The move has also fuelled speculation about the future of flood-fighting honcho Steve Topping. Topping is executive director of Water Stewardship. He was away in Australia on an exchange program when the announcement was made. He was informed of the changes by email.

About 25 people, including Topping, have been moved from Water Stewardship to MIT. Topping will remain in charge of flood forecasting and co-ordination, operation of water-control systems such as the Portage Diversion and flood-mitigation programs such as funding assistance for private diking programs.

Topping, who arrived from Alberta in 1996 and has headed Water Stewardship since 2004, loses the water services board and water licensing of groundwater and river usage by irrigators and municipalities.

As for the rest of Water Stewardship, its environmental functions, directed by assistant deputy minister, Dwight Williamson, are moving to Conservation. As well, Water Stewardship deputy minister Don Norquay has relinquished his position and will take a job in another ministry.

The province denies Topping has lost any authority or water issues are any less important to the government. His primary function was as flood fighter, and any offices he lost were not part of that, a spokesman said.

The move merely streamlines the flood-fighting functions by putting them all under one roof in MIT, the province maintains. MIT deputy minister Doug McNeil is no stranger to flood fights, having run the City of Winnipeg's flood-fighting operations before his move to the province. There are still details to be worked out, the provincial spokesman said.

Even so, having your department chopped and moved while you are away, as in Topping's case, is bound to fuel speculation. And in the provincial government, power is often gauged by how many people report to you.

But it's also well-known that there has been friction between Water Stewardship and MIT. The 2011 flood was managed by the two-headed monster of Water Stewardship and MIT. Depending on whom you talk to, that friction ranged from a little to a lot to "always," as one source put it.

The move to shuffle Water Stewardship into MIT indicates who came out the winner. The flood-fighting team now reports to MIT.

Obviously, something had to change after the confusion during the 2011 flood, including the bizarre Hoop and Holler decision. To refresh memories, the dike just east of Portage la Prairie was deliberately breached to relieve pressure on the Assiniboine River dikes. It ended up reducing water levels on the Assiniboine River by a whopping one inch.

And not only were crest-level forecasts way off in 2011, but the crest dates were off by as much as a week in one case. Throw in an impending election and stir.

It all cries out for an independent review -- an independent review such as the one the Filmon government called after the 1997 flood. The NDP government has so far refused. Why? It would seem a democratic right for Manitobans to be able to know what really happened in 2011.

Meanwhile, Topping returns to his desk Monday. McNeil told the Free Press he has scheduled a meeting with Topping. Should be an interesting meeting.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2012 A7

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