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Residents watch as properties disappear into the Red

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Wolfgang Jansen purchased a Fort Garry riverfront home in 1996 with a stand of Manitoba maples in a backyard that stretched about 10 metres to the Red River.

Most of the maples are gone now, along with the yard and riverbank, which started sliding away in 2001 and has continued to slump ever since.

The back deck of his Riviera Crescent home dangles over the latest fault line, which has exposed the rear of the house's foundation. Jansen's house remains level, but the banks are moving around it, threatening to send the property tumbling into the Red -- possibly this year, maybe next.

Thirty properties along Riviera Crescent and neighbouring Crescent Drive, all perched on an outside bend of the Red River, face the short- or long-term prospects of a fast-moving riverbank. Jansen's home, built closest to the bank, will be the first to go.

"We moved here because we liked being on the river. It never occurred to us it could move like this," said Jansen, a fisheries biologist, who faces the loss of his property without compensation.

"There were no problems the first few years. Then in 2001, we were sitting on the deck when a big bank just slipped away. We've lost more almost every year since."

In 2005 and 2006, summer floods saturated the riverbank, accelerating the erosion. Then large sheets of ice during the spring flood of 2009 tore out most of the stabilizing vegetation, "snapping maple trees like matchsticks," Jansen said.

The riverbank at his home can only be stabilized by also shoring up neighbouring properties. Rock-filled columns called caissons and rip-rap -- large stones -- would be placed in the soil along the banks.

The total cost of the job is estimated to exceed $1.5 million for the Riviera Crescent homes alone. Jansen's portion would be at least $112,000 and he does not believe he and his wife, who is undergoing chemotherapy, can afford the tab.

"I'm almost ready to give up," he said.

In 2006, the city agreed to spend $830,000 to stabilize the riverbank behind Jansen's home and 11 other Riviera Crescent properties, provided they all agreed to pay back the tab on their property-tax bills over the next 20 years.

But unanimity could not be reached among the property owners on Riviera Crescent, as some homeowners balked at the bill. Two years later, in a then-unprecedented move, the city tried to sweeten the deal by agreeing to cover 25 per cent of the cost.

Normally, the city does not help private property owners shore up riverbanks. But in 2008, a cost-benefit analysis determined it made sense to spend some public money on private riverbank stabilization in order to prevent the loss of the tax base when erosion-affected properties are assessed downward or destroyed.

The Riviera property owners, however, still could not agree to the deal. "It was still cost-prohibitive for the homeowners to invest," said John Kiernan, a senior city property official.

At the time, the property owners believed the province was also coming to the table with cash of its own. But the Selinger government merely authorized the city to reallocate existing grants, provincial spokeswoman Naline Rampersad confirmed.

The city is not prepared to set a precedent by offering even more to private property owners on Riviera Crescent, explained Kiernan, noting there are hundreds of kilometres of riverbank in Winnipeg. It would have been cheaper and easier to conduct the work in 2006, he said.

"The longer you wait for the bank to move, the more difficult it is to fix what's left," Kiernan said.

Ultimately, the city is not in the home-repair business, said St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel, who chairs the committee responsible for riverbanks. Fixing riverbanks is no different than fixing foundations, he said.

"Yes, we want to help when times are extremely difficult, which is why we put an offer on the table for those people," Swandel said. "I just don't know what more we can do. There's an issue where it becomes a taxpayer's responsibility."

Jansen said he understands the sentiment. "We know it's our responsibility," he said. "But when you buy a property, you look at the long-term pattern and there were no problems on this part of the river."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2012 A4

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