Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Floods wash away old ideas of the Prairie

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REGINA -- A grandpa has a difficult time telling his family from Ottawa about the dry Prairie climate when our truck's wipers can hardly handle the rain smashing into the windshield, a crude sign tells us the TransCanada ahead has been washed out, many farm fields on both sides of us are small lakes and the newspapers we've picked up are full of stories and pictures about people up to their hips in dirty flood water.

My granddaughter Gwynneth, 13, doesn't want to contradict my stories of the sun-baked Prairie. My daughter, Jen, is less reticent. "You're going to have to include floods in your view of the West," she says.

I'm too nervous about the road to argue. We've been forced to take a muddy detour around a TransCanada washout near Indian Head. The truck is slithering around and showing a disconcerting tendency to head for water-filled ditches.

Later, I tell Jen that some of my impressions of the West -- many of them gleaned from National Film Board documentaries of the '30s -- as a land of violent dust storms and road-side ditches filled with dirt might be dated.

But I'm not the only one who is going to have to change. Our governments have refused to implement complete water management systems, only rousing themselves to action when a high-profile community is in danger. They are now paying for this neglect.

Fighting this year's floods will cost Manitoba an estimated $750 million. Wet fields will cost another $1 billion. The Canadian Wheat Board has estimated between 2.4 million and 3.2 million hectares of farm land will go unseeded, most of it in Manitoba and Saskatchewan -- making it the worst year on record for Manitoba farmers.

The damage figures don't take into account the suffering many families have endured.

Southern Saskatchewan suffered similar losses when the Souris River went on a rampage. Alberta has committed up to $25 million for flood relief.

At a meeting last month, the Western premiers called on Ottawa to develop a new long-term national disaster mitigation program.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said: "We need the disaster financial assistance program to change, to have a greater commitment to putting money into mitigation projects, projects that will prevent families and homes, individuals and property from being damaged."

Regina is a good example of how water management has changed on the Prairies. Sir John A. Macdonald pushed to make Regina an important stop on the new CPR transcontinental railway because some of his cronies had land there. But think of this, you people who benefit from Winnipeg's lovely elms, the site was flat and treeless as far as you could see, with a sickly creek running through it. Even Sir John A. wrote the area "could do with a few trees."

But this is what I've always loved about Regina: its citizens decided they were going to make their community beautiful. In the '30s, they dug a small lake and directed the Wascana Creek into it. Then they built a fancy bridge over the creek and lake -- what newspaper feature, Ripley's Believe It or Not, called the world's largest bridge over the smallest body of water. To hell with you, said Regina's citizens. And they continued to hand-plant a forest around their little lake making it one of North America's largest downtown parks.

The park features a legislature, which looks a lot like Manitoba's, as does Alberta's. More government and cultural buildings were added later.

I was thinking about Regina's careful husbanding of water as I watched Jen and Gwynneth cavorting on a three-storey high water slide in the city. I was sitting on my hotel room's balcony overlooking the enclosed water park, drinking an Aussie wine out of a can.

The good burghers of old Regina could never have visualized this.

My family's right: I'll have to modify some of my patter about the parched Prairie.

But at least I was partly right: Winnipeg and parts of southeastern Manitoba had a drought in July, but the province's southwest and Saskatchewan's southeast were awash with water.

Tom Ford is editor of The Issues Network.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 8, 2011 A10

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