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River-walk promise wanting

Selinger's 2009 vow to keep walkway open still unfulfilled

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August begins and the walkway trails at the Forks remain underwater due to the high rivers. Sarah Taylor / Winnipeg Free Press August 5, 2014

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August begins and the walkway trails at the Forks remain underwater due to the high rivers. Sarah Taylor / Winnipeg Free Press August 5, 2014

Five years ago next month, then-NDP leadership aspirant Greg Selinger promised to use the Red River Floodway to control summer river levels to maximize the use of The Forks walkway.

At a news conference at The Forks docks, Selinger, who was seeking to replace the departed Gary Doer as NDP boss and premier, said he wanted to ensure the river walk was open more for Manitobans to use.

A year later, in October 2010, in marking his first anniversary as premier, he repeated the pledge. That summer, because of persistent flooding due to snowmelt and record-breaking rains, the walkway had only been open three weeks the entire season.

Five years after Selinger originally made the promise, the province has seen little progress in resolving the problem.

A committee tasked with reviewing floodway operating rules is examining the issue, but its report, once expected late this fall, has been delayed by the 2014 flood.

Meanwhile, the river walk has only been open for the full summer season once -- in 2012 -- since the premier made his pledge.

Paul Jordan, chief operating officer with The Forks Renewal Corp., said the walkway may not open this year until September.

The floodway was utilized briefly this summer when the city's rivers got so high officials were concerned about the likelihood of basement flooding. But the gates were lowered once the crisis eased.

River levels are dropping slowly. On Tuesday, the Red at James Avenue stood at 9.85 feet above normal winter ice levels. When it reaches eight feet or so, the river walk is visible. The river must drop even lower before The Forks can install its docks.

When asked about the continued walkway closure, Jordan is resigned. "It's hard to even get upset anymore. It's just what it is," he said Tuesday.

The Forks executive also said it's understandable the province is preoccupied with other issues, given the major floods in 2011 and 2014.

Yet, he noted that fewer visitors push through the doors of The Forks Market when the river walk is closed. Tens of thousands use the walkway each week when it is open in summer.

Gord Cartwright, owner of Splash Dash Tours, has been hard-hit by the high river levels.

In 2012, his river bus service -- with nine stops along the Red and Assiniboine rivers -- saw as many as 30,000 riders.

Now, his business is limited to providing half-hour guided historic tours, launched from a temporary dock Cartwright designed at The Forks.

Cartwright, who has expressed frustration in the past with high river levels, also understands the province has more on its plate these days than devising a strategy for keeping the walkway open. But he feels it could do more to keep the walkway open.

One way would be to operate the floodway when river levels are relatively low -- yet still submerging the walkway. "There's lots of times I've seen the water a foot above the walkway and it stays there for, like, three weeks. And the floodway is completely empty," said Cartwright. "If they backed it (the Red) up then (diverting water into the floodway channel) it would not affect anyone between here and Morris."

Reached in Toronto late Tuesday, Selinger said he has not forgotten his five-year-old pledge. He plans to work to make good on it once the serious issues raised by the most recent floods are under control.

"The priority had to be -- and remains -- keeping people safe and communities safe," he said.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Have you missed The Forks walkway? Join the conversation below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2014 A4

History

Updated on Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 7:47 AM CDT: adds colour photos

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