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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Brandon needs real fix for floods

Posted: 08/16/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0


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As the Assiniboine River waters slowly retreat from the second major flood in three years, the damage is everywhere to be seen.

The areas around Brandon's Riverbank Discovery Centre, a jewel of Western Manitoba tourism, resemble ruins from a war zone. Concrete components of public gathering places in Eleanor Kidd Park, which has been closed since the 2011 flood, are strewn like childrens' toys. In every direction, there are dead trees, shrubs and flower beds. A coating of silt covers everything.

Along First Street, which was not defended against the 2014 floodwaters, massive slabs of asphalt were stripped from the roadway, a testament to the immense power of the waters that rushed through the city. Much of the city-owned golf course has been underwater for weeks, and will likely remain out of service for the rest of the season.

The price tag to clean up the damage caused by this summer's flood to Brandon alone will be in the tens of millions of dollars. That's on top of the millions more spent after the 2011 flood.

The latest flooding has put the future of the Discovery Centre in jeopardy. "We need to re-evaluate what our focus is... what we are actually able to rebuild and what needs to just be remediated," said Lois MacDonald, manager of the centre told the Brandon Sun earlier this week.

"It requires... a sober second thought as to how we move forward overall," she added.

MacDonald is correct that a thoughtful post-flood assessment is required, but not just regarding the future of the facility she manages. It is time for Manitobans to examine the evolving (and perhaps worsening) threat posed by the Assiniboine, the adequacy of existing and proposed flood protection and measures that should be undertaken to minimize such costly damage when future floods occur.

As to the threat posed by the Assiniboine, the fact the river has experienced two one-in-300-year floods, and that one of them was not the result of springtime snowmelt, speaks for itself. Whether it is the result of climate change, enhanced drainage along the upper Assiniboine watershed or a combination of those and other factors, it appears clear things have permanently changed, and past models regarding the frequency and severity of flooding on the river can no longer be relied upon.

Regarding the adequacy of flood protection, Brandon does not enjoy anything approaching the permanent one-in-700-year protection enjoyed by Winnipeg. It does not even have one-in-300 permanent protection, largely because successive local and provincial governments have broken promises to provide that protection, apparently because of the misunderstanding that one-in-300 floods only happen every 300 years. In fact, the formula, assuming it is correct, means there is a one-in-300 chance every year.

Adding to the problem is the false assumption the Shellmouth Reservoir is capable of protecting downstream communities from any and all flood threats. The contradictory mission of the reservoir -- it must provide flood protection, assure a stable supply of drinking water and serve as a recreation and tourism facility -- makes it incapable of protecting western Manitoba in all instances. This summer's flood proved that, too.

Those are two factors that contribute to the problem, but the greatest contributor gets little attention.

Inadequate provincial land-use laws have allowed municipalities all along the Assiniboine to approve residential, commercial and industrial construction on the flood plain, and perilously close to the river. Over the past three decades many millions of dollars in residential, commercial, industrial and recreational construction has occurred along the Assiniboine in Brandon alone. The story is the same all along the river, particularly downstream of the Portage diversion.

It is because of the proximity of those homes, businesses and recreation facilities to the Assiniboine that we have spent more than a billion dollars in emergency flood-fighting over the past three years, and are in the process of destroying Lake Manitoba.

It's too late to stop the development that has occurred, but not too late to stop the problem from worsening. If the Selinger government wants to slow the drain on its finances due to flooding, a good first step would be legislation banning construction on flood plains.

The absence of such a law allowed this problem to arise. Let's fix the problem before it gets even larger.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.



Twitter: @deverynross

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 A13

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