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Lake Winnipeg and Manitoba Hydro

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I went to Victoria Beach on the weekend to see for myself the damage left behind from the Oct. 27 storm.

I was stunned. Sickened.

I’ve gone to Victoria Beach (I do not have a lakefront cottage) for about 40 of my 50 years.

The storm wiped out a huge part of the shoreline and has forever changed Victoria Beach and other cottage areas in the south basin. Grand Beach got hit just as bad. Sands dunes were washed away and part of the boardwalk was destroyed.

The beach we go to at V.B. is Connaught. It faces north. It took a huge beating from the north winds and the high water. High sand cliffs have now replaced a gentle, treed slope. Twenty to 30 feet of shoreline is gone. So are the trees, big pines, birch and poplar. The lake sucked everything off the shore; sand, bushes, trees by the roots and steps. On Pelican Point front decks and steps on some cottages were ripped off and washed away. It’s the same all along the lakefront.

Some describe it as the worst storm in 50 years.

Others point fingers at Manitoba Hydro. Since 1976 it’s regulated the level of the lake.

It does so, turning the lake into a reservoir, to power its hydro-electric dams on the Nelson River, where the lake drains eventually to Hudson Bay.

Hydro keeps the lake at about 715 feet above sea level. That’s the level determined almost 40 years ago of what’s need to power its Nelson River dams in the winter months, so that we have enough electricity for our block heaters and Christmas lights. The level is control at the Jenpeg structure and its channels on the Nelson River.

The finger-pointing goes like this: If Hydro kept the lake at 713 feet above sea level the damage of Oct. 27 would have been a lot less severe, because there would have been two feet less of the water in the lake.

Hydro says that’s not true.

First, they say lake level had nothing to with the storm. What did was a sudden change in atmospheric pressure. That extreme drop allowed wind from the north to blow up to more than 90 km/h. The wind pushed the water from the north basin in the smaller south basin, almost like a car driving over a full tube of toothpaste.

Water was squeezed southwards onto the beaches at V.B. Grand and Gimli, an extreme version of a wind tide.

Pushed by the wind with nowhere to go, officials say the water level went up three to five feet. My guess is that it went much higher. A lot higher.

You can see from this amateur video taken at the height of storm of the pier at Victoria Beach what it was like. The main pier was almost completely swallowed by cyclone-like waves. A lower dock was submerged.

Hydro and province argue that with the lake being regulated, it’s level is more consistent year to year, outside of a drought year like seven years ago.

And a 2000 report by the provincial Lake Winnipeg Erosion Advisory Group found erosion around the lake is driven by wind events and not static water levels.

In the past, before regulation, the lake spilled over breaches and low-lying cottage areas and nearby farmland. Now it doesn’t. The two high water years are 1966 and 1974.

In the back of my head I remember what 1966 was like a Stephenson Point near Winnipeg Beach. My parents rented a cottage, and most of the time we spent in a rowboat in the backyard and catching frogs. In 1974, I remember people sandbagging the road to the pier at Victoria Beach when it went completely below water.

Hydro explains its role on the lake on its website.

The real villain in this is the weather. When Hydro got permission to regulate the lake, none of us were talking about climate change.

"Climate change is something we’re foolish to deny," says Dr. Al Kristofferson, who heads up the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium. "I think to a certain extent we should be able to predict even more extreme conditions."

Ominous words, for sure, especially when you look at what the Oct. 27 storm did to the lake.

This time next year the provincial licence Hydro operates under to regulate the lake is up for renewal.

Will climate change figure in that process? Certainly, lake levels will. There are many people who think no matter what Hydro says, the lake would be better off two feet lower.

I don’t agree.

We were hit by a freak weather system. It not only blew up Lake Winnipeg, but Lake Manitoba, too. Damage there was almost as severe.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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