Despite still dealing with this summer's flooding, the province is pushing ahead with preliminarily plans to build two new channels that will drain Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin faster in high-water years. Public meetings on five options were to start last month but have been pushed back to September when the flood threat is over.
What the province wants to do -- the two channels were recommended in two reports that reviewed the devastating 2011 flood that destroyed dozens of properties on Lake Manitoba -- was discussed Monday by officials during the daily update of flood conditions. It came as critics such as the Lake Manitoba Flood Rehabilitation Committee and the Association of Lake Manitoba Stakeholders say the Selinger government has been too slow to deal with flooding on Lake Manitoba.
Both groups say the continued use of the Portage Diversion wrecks farmland and puts homes and cottages at risk of flooding because of high waves. It's forecast up to 35,000 cubic feet per second of flood water from the Assiniboine will flow through the diversion into Lake Manitoba in the coming days.
The province said the increased flows have led to a slight revision of the Lake Manitoba peak forecast reaching 814.8 feet above sea level by early August.
Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton said the province is moving as quickly as it can to deal with the issue, and pointed out it took then-premier Duff Roblin a decade, after he was elected in 1958, to get the Red River Floodway completed. The floodway and the Portage Diversion were built in response to the 1950 Red River flood that saw about 100,000 people evacuated from Winnipeg.
"Our goal is to get even more water out of Lake Manitoba and even more water out of Lake St. Martin," Ashton said, adding the 2011 flood overwhelmed flood structures designed in the early 1960s.
Ashton said the province can no longer use Lake St. Martin as the dumping ground for Lake Manitoba's floodwater.
"If you're going to have additional water flowing out of Lake Manitoba, you have to have additional water flowing out of Lake St. Martin," he said. "You can't have one without the other."
Ashton and his officials said the province is looking at two channel options to add more capacity to the Fairford River Water Control Structure immediately north of the existing structure, which started operating in 1961 to control levels on Lake Manitoba. Another two options are to the south of the structure and Pinaymootang First Nation. Another option to excavate a longer channel from Watchhorn Bay, to the south on Lake Manitoba, would follow Birch Creek and empty into the southern tip of Lake St. Martin.
Doug McNeil, deputy minister of infrastructure and transportation, said before any decision is made, the five options have to go to public consultation, especially with First Nations.
"We're still trying to narrow it down based on cost," McNeil said. A ballpark estimate for the two new channels is $300 million.
"There's a lot of rock up there and we're trying to minimize how much rock we have to cut through," McNeil said. At the same time, the province must also complete a channel from Lake Winnipeg to meet the Lake St. Martin emergency channel built during the height of the 2011 flood. An alternative, longer route is being studied to address concerns of commercial fishers that the preferred route could hurt spawning grounds on Lake Winnipeg.
"We have been working on this since day one and that work is going to continue," Ashton said, adding approved projects will be subjected to environmental review and rigorous engineering.
"You've got to make sure it works," he said. "That means you have to get out and do a lot of very intense analysis."
He added the province is also examining the feasibility of developing additional water storage on the Assiniboine River upstream of Portage la Prairie, which would reduce the frequency of operation at the Portage Diversion, and the possibility of developing storage on tributaries to the Assiniboine River.
On Monday, the province said rain-fed flows on the Assiniboine River into the Portage Reservoir west of Portage la Prairie have increased to 49,450 cubic feet per second (cfs) and will be increasing as the second crest approaches. Flows from the reservoir into the Portage Diversion are approximately 31,450 cfs and flows into the Assiniboine River are 18,000 cfs.
The second crest at the Portage Reservoir is forecast to be 52,000 to 53,000 cfs between today and Wednesday and will remain high for a few days before declining.
Officials also said a deliberate breach at the Hoop and Holler bend southeast of Portage la Prairie remains a possibility -- though unlikely -- if any dikes along the Assiniboine River weaken.