BRANDON -- As the Assiniboine River continues to rise in western Manitoba, so too does the anger and anxiety of many Westman residents.
Accusations and counter-accusations over who is to blame for this summer's flooding are slowly giving way to growing apprehension over the possibility the "high-water event" of 2011 may be repeated in the spring of 2013.
At the heart of the controversy lies the Shellmouth Dam and reservoir.
Located about 25 kilometres northwest of Russell, it was constructed for the dual purpose of protecting downstream communities from periodic high-water flows on the Assiniboine, and supplementing low-water flows on the river during dry conditions, ensuring a reliable water supply for Brandon, Portage, industrial users and farms that rely on irrigation.
The reservoir created by the dam, known as the Lake of the Prairies, is approximately 55 kilometres long and capable of holding 500 million cubic metres of water. When reservoir levels exceed that capacity, excess water spills over a concrete spillway into the river channel.
That is exactly what is happening these days, as higher-than-normal rainfall upstream of the Shellmouth has filled the reservoir beyond capacity. Excess water is flowing down the spillway, and has flooded more than 50,000 acres of farmland downstream. The Assiniboine has also spilled over its banks in Brandon, flooding adjacent land within the city.
As the floodwater spreads, many of those affected are blaming the province for mismanaging the flow of water from the Shellmouth. They accuse the province of making a huge gaffe in March, when it decided to retain water in the reservoir because of concerns over an impending drought and a desire to ensure there would be enough water for downstream communities that rely upon the Assiniboine for their drinking water.
The fear of drought was widely held throughout Westman in March.
Withholding water in the Shellmouth reservoir was a reasonable decision, given the circumstances as they existed at the time. Having made the wrong decision in March, however, the province now has an even tougher decision to make -- drain the reservoir now, or keep the gates closed?
The Assiniboine is already at flood stage and the reservoir is still overflowing -- exactly the same conditions as the summer of 2010. The City of Brandon is calling for an immediate increase in flow from the dam in order to reduce the volume of water in the reservoir, but such a move is being resisted by downstream farmers who are already flooded and fear even more water will wipe them out.
The stakes are high and the consequences that could flow from making the wrong choice could be severe. If the amount of water in the reservoir cannot be reduced significantly before winter sets in, western Manitoba will be left with no effective means of controlling the flow of floodwater in the spring of 2013. Depending on the volume of rainfall this fall and the snowfall this winter in western Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan, Manitobans could be forced to endure a repeat of the spring of 2011 -- with another $1-billion price tag for taxpayers.
The situation underscores the high level of risk associated with relying on a single water-control structure with a contradictory mission statement and insufficient capacity to protect the province from the Assiniboine's floodwater.
It emphasizes the need for additional measures to be taken to enhance our ability to control the Assiniboine's flow, including more reservoirs and reclaimed wetlands. It points to the necessity of better understanding changes to upstream drainage and controlling the development and use of land along the Assiniboine's flood plain.
If we learned anything from the 2011 flood, it is that the time to take these steps is now, before yet another significant flood occurs.
With the Shellmouth reservoir full to capacity and excess water rushing down the spillway, we may have less time than we thought.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.