On paper, options A to F look simple enough, but in the real world, the solution is anything but.
The Selinger government has six options to build a new outlet to drain flood-prone Lake Manitoba and two to extend the emergency channel -- hastily dug during the disastrous 2011 flood -- that is to drain neighbouring Lake St. Martin into Lake Winnipeg.
The government also wants to make Lake St. Martin a permanent part of its provincewide flood protection network. That means a new road to the remote site northeast of Gypsumville and control gates.
Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton said the rough estimate for both projects is about $300 million, with work on both likely to begin at the same time after they receive all local, provincial and federal regulatory approvals.
Those left homeless, and those who watched their Lake Manitoba cottages and farmland wrecked after the 2011 flood on the Assiniboine River, say neither project can come fast enough.
"One can't be done without the other," Ashton said. "Sequentially, the Lake St. Martin outlet makes sense to do either at the same time or before. The logic is if we can get the Lake St. Martin structure permanent earlier, before the Lake Manitoba outlet, we can be operating it year-round in anticipation of a flood."
'Is it complex? Yes. Is it needed? Absolutely'
The Fairford River Water Control Structure to the south went into service in 1961 and was built to address flooding on Lake Manitoba by sending excess water into Lake St. Martin. That was before the Portage Diversion opened in 1970 to send floodwater from the Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba.
Complaints over the next decade highlighted the resulting flooding on Lake St. Martin. In 1975, what was then the Manitoba Water Commission concluded the water-level pattern was satisfactory, and no outlet was built for Lake St. Martin.
Ashton said the scale of the work ahead is comparable to the recent $627-million expansion of the Red River Floodway, made necessary after the 1997 Flood of the Century in the Red River Valley. Work was completed in 2009.
"From start to end, you're realistically looking a seven-year time frame," Ashton said. "We're already into the seven years."
The clock started ticking on that seven years in the spring of 2013, with the release of two independent reports that reviewed the province's response to the 2011 flood and water levels on Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin. To compare, it took the province 12 years to begin the original construction of the Red River Floodway in 1962 following the worst flood in modern Manitoba history in 1950, in which about 100,000 Winnipeggers were evacuated. Work on the floodway finished in 1968, and it was first used in 1969.
"You're looking, from an expedited manner, about three to four years for construction," Ashton said, once one of the options is approved. "Is it complex? Yes. Is it needed? Absolutely."
With the six options for the new outlet for Lake Manitoba, Ashton and deputy minister Doug McNeil say the province has no preferred choice, although three stand out as being feasible sooner.
"They are all very realistic options," McNeil said.
But there's two 'buts,' Ashton adds. One is resolving land-use issues on Pinaymootang First Nation (formerly Fairford First Nation), in which the Fairford River passes through, because two of the options (A and F) would be on reserve land.
"There are always issues with trying to build things on a reserve," McNeil adds. "To try to simplify the process, it would be easier for us not to deal with on-reserve issues."
Ashton said as in the floodway expansion, an aboriginal set-aside initiative could be developed to employ local indigenous and Métis people.
"We wouldn't talk about just the one dimension," Ashton said, adding the projects are about more than preventing flooding. "We would talk about the other as well."
McNeil said options B and C involve blasting through rock, and option D involves excavating through soil and a marsh, but the elevation drop is in the province's favour.
"If you look at the top ends of Lake Manitoba (812.5 feet) and Lake St. Martin (800 feet), then we're gaining 121/2 feet," he said.
Ashton adds with the options that aren't on Pinaymootang, land acquisition is also an issue. Some is owned by the province, but some is privately owned, which would either have to be bought or expropriated. Both would add time before any work starts.
For the Lake St. Martin emergency channel extension outlet to Lake Winnipeg, McNeil said the province is looking at building it south of Dauphin River First Nation, south of Willow Point. That would mean the original plan of locating it north at Johnson Beach would be scrapped to protect spawning grounds. The matter was raised by First Nations commercial fishers during a recent protest at the mouth of the Lake St. Martin channel.
Vicki Burns of the Save Lake Winnipeg Project said while she understands the immediate focus on an additional outlet for Lake Manitoba, a wider view should be considered for the entire Assiniboine River watershed. Burns said the long-term focus should be on what Manitoba and Saskatchewan can do to hold or retain more water on the land through more aggressive wetland-preservation and enhancement programs. The Manitoba government recently announced its intention to develop a surface-water management plan, and the Saskatchewan government is also studying the issue.
The drainage of land mostly for agricultural purposes in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and the resulting loss of natural wetlands over the past 50 years has contributed to the level of flooding seen in the past few years in southern Manitoba, she said.
"They're talking about some huge investments infrastructure now, and I haven't heard them talking about any of that going towards what I call green infrastructure," Burns said.
John Pomeroy, Canada research chair in water resources and climate change and director of the Centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan, said in a recent study, widespread drainage of agricultural lands has increased peak flows by about 30 per cent.
Burns also said while the province's plan is positive, it only addresses the further loss of wetlands, not the restoration.
She said one only has to turn south to Louisiana, which was devastated by hurricane Katrina in 2005. The widespread damage the storm caused was in part due to coastal erosion and the loss of wetlands.
Louisiana has lost about 4,870 square kilometres of coastline since the 1930s and has developed a master plan to restore its coastal marshlands to protect against further devastation from hurricanes.
"It seems to me that this is a smart way for us to go in the future," Burns said. "It won't totally prevent flooding, but it could possibly prevent the severity by 25 to 30 per cent, and it could really help our lake-water quality."