Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hope in short supply around Lake Manitoba

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Water laps the shore along Twin Lakes Beach on Lake Manitoba earlier this month.


MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Water laps the shore along Twin Lakes Beach on Lake Manitoba earlier this month. Photo Store

When I took my younger son to the doctor's office for his first vaccination, he was happy and unconcerned. When the doctor jabbed him with the needle, he turned to us with a pained look on his face, but didn't cry. However, on the next visit, he started howling as soon as he saw the door to the doctor's office and did not stop crying until we left. The second time, he knew what was coming.

During the flood of 2011 on Lake Manitoba, no one knew what was coming. While the province did an admirable job of responding to flooding along the Assiniboine River, averting major damage there, such was not the case on Lake Manitoba.

The flood defences effective on river floods failed almost immediately in the face of the rising lake waters. The result was the greatest flood disaster in Manitoba's history. The dollar cost of the flood soared well over a billion dollars, dwarfing the cost of the 1997 Red River flood and even the 1950 Winnipeg flood.

In a recent blog post, Free Press reporter Bruce Owen opined Lake Manitobans were crying wolf this year, that the flood of 2014 is nowhere near as bad as the 2011 flood. So why should anyone listen to the flood victims any more?

Well, the flood of 2014 on Lake Manitoba has just begun. We don't know what the future holds. We didn't see the rainstorm at the end of June coming, and that drove up the level of the Assiniboine and Lake Manitoba dramatically. People on Lake Manitoba now look apprehensively to the skies. More rain means more damage, potentially catastrophic.

The water will likely be lower than 2011, but there is an important caveat. Most of the damage in 2011 occurred on May 31 when the lake was two feet below its peak level, and not much higher than the lake is certain to reach this year (814.8 to 815.0 feet). A moderate windstorm by Lake Manitoba standards has already caused flood damage. Water overtopped roads that were returned to pre-flood levels; properties are already flooded and it grows worse day by day.

I stayed after 2011 because of what is now clearly a misplaced optimism that things would get better. My expectation was that water stewards would find ways to not reflexively flood Lake Manitoba when the lake was at perilously high levels. This means not opening the Portage Diversion when much more flow could be carried down the lower Assiniboine. This means adjusting water-flow policy in a risk-based manner. Yes, putting more water down the Assiniboine does involve some local damage, and every measure should be taken to minimize this. It does involve a risk of basement flooding in Winnipeg. But this risk is nowhere near proportional to what occurs on Lake Manitoba. Farmers and ranchers will now lose years of production. Homeowners will be evacuated from properties for months if not years, as in 2011. It doesn't matter the properties have been raised when they are surrounded by flooded roads and land. On my own property, the coming high water will scrape clean anything standing: 2015 will mean starting over again. I'm not sure I'm up to it. That's my fault for having some faith in our government that they would find interim solutions that actually work.

Waiting at least seven years for a solution to be put in place is a death sentence for the lakeside communities. One of the under-reported stories in the media has been the effect on local business that has withered and died with the exodus of both seasonal and permanent residents.

The reason this flood is worse is the psychological toll on the flood victims. Unlike a river flood, a lake flood does not go away quickly and leaves a legacy that endures. The reason it is worse is the same reason my son cried at his second visit to the doctor's office. He knew what was coming.

The first time, there was hope it wouldn't be that bad, the lake wasn't going to get that high, we would all get through it. But we didn't. We went through the futile gesture of building sandbag dikes in front of structures that were doomed.

In 2011, as in 2014, the military was called in to help prepare those on the lower Assiniboine for a flood that ultimately had a minor effect. And while massive preparations were conducted to avert a lower Assiniboine flood, Lake Manitobans were ignored. That flood did materialize and was devastating.

I and my fellow Lake Manitobans sympathize with the people near the Hoop and Holler bend now twice exposed to the terror of deliberate flooding to protect others elsewhere. Much like Lake Manitobans.

Unlike in 2011, hope is a commodity in short supply on Lake Manitoba. People are reliving the horror of the last flood. Those who returned to the lake, and many didn't, are now living too near to water that was never close to habitable structures for the six decades prior to 2011.

Bags are packed in preparation for an evacuation that may come at any moment. It keeps people awake night after night, wondering whether they will get through the next day. And they will do so for months. It is wearing and stressful and soul-destroying.

They are most decidedly not crying wolf.


Scott Forbes is an ecologist at the University of Winnipeg and has owned property on Lake Manitoba for 15 years.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2014 A9

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