Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Province blasts diversion protest

Says farmers' actions put communities at risk of flooding

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The protest at the Portage Diversion put the Opposition on the defensive in the legislature Tuesday.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

The protest at the Portage Diversion put the Opposition on the defensive in the legislature Tuesday. Photo Store

The Selinger government called a 12-hour protest at the Portage Diversion Monday "unacceptable" and "irresponsible," claiming if it had lasted any longer, communities to the east might have been flooded.

Mere hours after a court injunction was obtained to remove the trespassers, a surge of water arrived at the diversion's reservoir that could have had dire consequences for the RM of Portage la Prairie and the municipalities of Cartier, Headingley and St. François Xavier, officials said.

The large volume of water could have caused ice to break up and jam, quickly creating uncontrolled rises in the Assiniboine River that would have left people little time to protect themselves, they said.

On Monday, engineers advised the province to open the Portage Diversion at 11 a.m., based on river flows of 7,000 cubic feet per second to the west at Holland. Due to the protest, which wasn't cleared until late in the evening, the province could not begin diverting water to Lake Manitoba until 11 p.m.

Doug McNeil, deputy minister of infrastructure and transportation, said Tuesday that soon afterwards, a great deal more water entered the reservoir at the diversion than officials anticipated.

At 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, the flows at Portage climbed to 7,300 cfs, with about 2,000 redirected to the diversion channel. At 5 a.m., flows climbed to 11,000, with 6,000 going into the Portage Diversion. And by 8:20 a.m., the volume of water entering the reservoir surged to 17,000 cfs, with 10,000 cfs diverted to the channel.

The high flows worried officials, because they view any volume much above 5,000 cfs flowing east of Portage in the Assiniboine, on a river still containing a lot of solid ice, as a recipe for disaster.

"What those numbers really represent is how precarious a situation we would have been in had we not operated (the diversion) because the inflows ended up being much greater than we originally thought over that period of time," McNeil said.

Furthermore, officials were worried the ability to activate the reservoir's gates could have been lost had too much ice entered the reservoir. If that had occurred, they would have lost the ability to control the Assiniboine waters heading downstream of Portage la Prairie.

"What happened (Monday) was irresponsible, was not acceptable. It created a real risk. It put other Manitobans at risk," said Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton.

"It's fortunate we got it (the Portage Diversion) open when we did, because if we hadn't, there would have been significant consequences," Ashton told a flood briefing late in the day after a raucous debate in the legislature over the protest and the involvement of PC MLA Ian Wishart.

Coincidentally, Ashton will table a bill today that will increase the powers of the Manitoba Emergency Measures Organization in the event of a flood. He didn't provide details of the proposed legislation on Tuesday.

In the legislature on Tuesday, the Selinger government used a rare move for a sitting government, raising a matter of privilege in the legislature to demand the Opposition Progressive Conservative apologize for encouraging the protest.

The ensuing debate and finger-pointing in the house did what nothing else has done since the release of the provincial budget two weeks ago -- it put the Opposition on the defensive and shifted the topic to something other than the NDP's raising of the provincial sales tax by one percentage point to eight per cent and the elimination of the requirement to first hold a referendum.

The two targets of the NDP's wrath were Portage la Prairie MLA Wishart and PC Leader Brian Pallister.

Wishart was invited to meet the protesters at the diversion as he's their MLA. About three dozen Lake Manitoba-area farmers and ranchers staged a sit-in at the diversion, under the watchful eye of the RCMP, to protest what they said was the NDP's poor response to compensate them for flooding in 2011 and for not acting more quickly to build an outlet at the north end of the lake to drain it more quickly.

Both Pallister and Wishart refused the NDP's demand for an apology.

"I did my job," Wishart said. "I attended a legal protest. They did not put anyone at risk. I suspect the information that they seemed to have was better than what the minister (Ashton) appears to have."

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 1, 2013 A3

History

Updated on Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 6:11 AM CDT: replaces photo

2:57 PM: corrects typo.

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