Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Brandon gambles on flood

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Brandon is going to get its promised one-in-300-year flood protection, but it will have to wait until the fall of 2014.

"There have been changes in the schedule and the work will not be completed in 2013," city manager Scott Hildebrand told me. "The current schedule would be to complete the drainage works and undertake the first year of earthworks in 2013, then complete the earthworks in 2014. Our priority is to ensure that this project is done right the first time."

This is just the latest in a series of delays, leaving Brandon with worse than one-in-100-year flood protection until the spring of 2015 -- and that is assuming there are no additional delays.

In 2006, then-premier Gary Doer promised to work with Brandon to provide one-in-100-year protection. The city was never told about Doer's promise and the protection was not delivered. Had the promise been kept, three layers of sandbags would have saved Brandon from all of the anxiety, disruption and damages suffered during the 2011 flood.

During the height of that flood, Greg Selinger promised one-in-300-year flood protection for Brandon. On Dec. 27, 2011, he told the Brandon Sun, "We are moving ahead with one-in-300-year flood protection. The tenders are out on that."

In fact, no tenders had been issued at that time. The engineering drawings had not even been completed.

Senior provincial officials presented those drawings to Brandon's city council in May of this year, with a projected completion of this fall.

The plan would have provided Brandon with enhanced protection against flooding next spring, but in a surprising development, the province ceded management of the project to the city in July. With that hand-off in responsibility came a revised completion date of the fall of 2013. Now it's the fall of 2014.

If the province is concerned about the new timetable, it isn't showing it. In a prepared statement, provincial spokesman Jean-Marc Prevost said: "A complex project like this requires proper engineering assessments before construction begins, regardless of who is leading the project. We believe the City of Brandon is taking a responsible approach by ensuring that concerns raised in their engineering assessments are thoroughly addressed."

Progressive Conservative water stewardship critic Larry Maguire isn't buying the government's spin."

"It's another example of off-loading of responsibilities by this NDP government," he says. "With a billion-dollar deficit, they don't have the money to complete these infrastructure projects, so they've farmed it out to Brandon. Now Brandon's paying the price."

Manitoba Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard is more blunt.

"The province has broken its promise by leaving Brandon unprotected without a permanent dike until the spring of 2015... . It is shocking that the NDP have taken such a cavalier approach."

After a community experiences a one-in-300-year flood, it is easy to assume that there are 299 years to get ready for the next one. Is the Selinger government guilty of making this assumption? Are they taking the same risks previous governments have taken following significant Assiniboine River floods, by assuming they have plenty of time before the next big one?

It is a reasonable inference, given the evident lack of urgency they are showing regarding flood-protection improvements for Brandon.

If the 2011 flood taught us anything, it was that the decades-old flood-projection models for the Assiniboine are no longer accurate.

Communities such as Brandon are far more vulnerable, and given the multimillion-dollar cost of emergency flood fighting, it underscores the need for immediate flood protection. By delaying the completion of Brandon's permanent dikes until the fall of 2014, the Selinger government is betting serious flooding won't occur in 2013 and 2014.

It is a calculated risk that gambles with the lives and property of Brandonites, and with the finances of the province.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2012 A11

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