Lake Manitoba is flooding, again. Except for the flood of 2011-12, it has swollen to levels not seen since the 1950s.
People all around the lake are revisiting the horror of events that have not yet begun to fade from memory: windstorms now drive up water levels and inflict new damage on property and structures not yet repaired from the last flood. Nervous residents face a summer of fear.
It is Groundhog Day on Lake Manitoba.
Three years after the onset of the last flood, it seems like we have learned little and are set to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The lake has only one outlet, the Fairford River. Natural inflows to the lake from the Waterhen and Whitemud Rivers roughly balance what leaves the lake. It is the additional water from the one artificial inflow, the Portage Diversion, that has driven the lake up to flood levels again.
Provincial officials blame high natural inflows for the high lake levels, but this argument is disingenuous. Neither the Waterhen nor the Whitemud River has a switch on it. The Portage Diversion does.
The artificial inflow from this year and last has brought the lake again to dangerously high levels. Not as high as in 2011, but they don't have be. The catastrophic damage of 2011 occurred in May when the lake was two feet below its peak level reached later in July.
The problem of high lake levels is conceptually simple. To prevent flooding, either outflow must be increased or inflow decreased, or both. Although the problem is under study, there is no solution to increasing outflow from the lake in the near future. It appears increasingly unlikely that an expanded northern outlet on Lake Manitoba will be operating in the next five years, if it is built at all.
There has been much media coverage in recent days about the reopening of the 'emergency channel' to address flooding on Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin. This will have no effect on the level of Lake Manitoba before winter. Zero. Nil. None.
The channel is built on the wrong lake. It exits Lake St. Martin. The emergency channel will help lower high water levels on Lake St. Martin, which is of course, useful.
Its only benefit to Lake Manitoba is to allow more drainage over winter without flooding Lake St. Martin. For Lake Manitobans, it will only help residents clean up after a flood faster, not prevent the new flood from happening. Its use now is the political equivalent of going to the doctor and getting prescribed a sugar pill for a broken leg. It is a placebo and nothing more.
The simple and obvious solution is to send more water down the Assiniboine River and divert less into Lake Manitoba.
In the 1970s, the Assiniboine River east of Portage la Prairie could carry 24,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). In 2011, flood managers were surprised to find it could now only carry 19,000 cfs, and then only with difficulty. The natural channel capacity of the Assiniboine (i.e., no dikes) in this reach of the river is about 14,000 cfs. Yet in 2014, we are told it cannot carry more than 11,000 cfs without causing major flooding and that the rest must be diverted artificially to Lake Manitoba.
Currently, a wide range of infrastructure is being examined to address the problems that created one of the greatest flood disasters in the history of our province. There are many moving parts and these must be fit together carefully. If, for example, an extra outlet were built from Lake Winnipegosis to Cedar Lake, that might reduce flows on the Waterhen River and affect the size of a new outlet on Lake Manitoba. That kind of engineering takes time.
But some of the solutions are no-brainers and there was no reason for delayed implementation. One of these is to repair dikes on the lower Assiniboine to allow more water to flow more freely. The Selinger government has had three years to get this done, yet we are told in 2014 that less water can be sent down the Assiniboine than ever before.
Our provincial government justified the PST increase in large part because of the need for new flood infrastructure.
In April 2013, immediately before the budget that increased the PST, then finance minister Stan Struthers stated, "Our biggest challenge right now is paying for things like the flood-proofing infrastructure" (Globe and Mail, April 14, 2013). A price tag of more than a billion dollars for flood infrastructure over multiple years was widely quoted in the media. Last March, that became $320 million to be spent over five years for water-related infrastructure when spending plans for the flood of cash from the PST increase were announced.
Yet something curious happened along the way. Spending on flood-related infrastructure actually went down.
In the 2012/13 budget immediately prior to the PST increase, capital spending on flood-related infrastructure (floodway expansion and water-related infrastructure) in the Infrastructure and Transport Department totalled $52.8 million.
In the budget with the PST increase (2013/14), that figure fell to $37 million, and in the most recent budget (2014/15) fell further to just $36 million.
Spending on flood-related infrastructure went down following the PST increase, not up as promised.
In the aftermath of the flood of 2011/12, restoring the dikes on the lower Assiniboine should have been a clear priority.
We now routinely and artificially divert more than half of the flow of a major river system into a lake that cannot hold the excess water. Lake Manitobans are predictably left to deal with yet another flood.
British Columbia's colourful and long-serving premier, W.A.C. Bennett, used to say that if you wanted money spent in your riding, vote Social Credit. Our premier is not nearly so colourful. However I can't help but notice that most of the provincial ridings in the flood-affected areas of 2011, where money on flood infrastructure might be spent, are coloured Tory blue.
Scott Forbes is a professor of biology and an ecologist at the University of Winnipeg. He has owned property on Lake Manitoba for 15 years. He and his younger son are spending time catching carp on the lawn right now.