Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A new flood reality for Assiniboine

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A flood surpassing the 2011 Assiniboine River deluge is heading toward Portage la Prairie, taxing the Portage Diversion outlet and the river's banks east to Headingley. Yet, for all the lessons of 2011, Manitoba the provincial government has again called in the Canadian Forces to help protect people and property, including west of Winnipeg.

Western Manitobans living along the Assiniboine, Souris and other streams carrying waters from Saskatchewan, are justifiably asking why they've been left so ill-prepared. Why, given the critical importance of flood-fighting and the new revenues from an increased PST -- justified initially by the Selinger government for this very purpose -- the Assiniboine River dikes are still too weak to hold back the water.

Flood Fight

It may be unlike anything anyone has seen in living memory. In 2011, the Assiniboine River at Portage la Prairie hit a peak flow of about 53,000 cubic feet per second. Scott Forbes, a quantitative ecologist, has run models on 2011's flood, he says the river this year is bound to exceed that days from now.

That's a huge problem. In 2011, the Portage Diversion structure was pressed to its breaking point when a flow of 34,000 cfs were sent its way. The Assiniboine River downstream from Portage will need to handle more water this year.

Yet, the dikes between Portage and Headingley still cannot take more than the 18,000 cfs seen in 2011.

There's more rain to come, it is said, this weekend. Another emergency cut in the banks, at the Hoop and Holler bend will be made. An uncontrolled breach could be catastrophic for landowners on either side of the Assiniboine. A breach at the Portage Diversion puts Portage la Prairie at risk, Forbes notes.

The army is coming. Excessive spring rains, combined with a torrential storm last weekend, have left local muscle unable to bolster defences fast enough.

The provincial government and affected municipalities must accept the new reality that the 2011 flood, once referred to as a one-in-300-year event, may be seen much more frequently -- three similar floods have hit since 1882. That should serve to focus the minds of the province and its hydrological resources.

The municipalities are critical to flood prevention and protection. Over the decades, landowners, including farmers and agricultural producers, have carved drainage and built structures that change the way water flows, or stays on the land. Rainfalls now dump more water faster into the Assiniboine River and its feeders.

This is true of the Red River, but more work has gone into the Red River Valley due to its flood history.

The Assiniboine River, until 2011, was nearly neglected as a threat. Today, the main road into Brandon has been closed as a defence amid the flooding.

Western Manitoba municipalities and rural properties, as in Saskatchewan, are swamped from the extraordinary precipitation, and hundreds of residents have evacuated. Those staying in place are scrambling for sandbags in short supply, and they are left without the help to fill and stack them. Farmers' fields are soaked and may not be planted or, where planting has occurred, have washed out.

The financial toll is mounting. Lake Manitoba residents and businesses, including farms, may again bear the brunt, after so many have rebuilt properties wiped out in 2011 when windstorms hit a lake that had received diverted river water.

A second channel out of Lake Manitoba, augmenting the Fairford outlet to Lake St. Martin, was recommended by a task force after the 2011 flood. The province is still working out how to do that.

Mr. Forbes, a Lake Manitoba property owner, says the new outlet must release water at lower levels on Lake Manitoba than the Fairford channel. That would allow it to be effectively and safely used as an emergency outlet for the Assiniboine River. This will require building the right outlet from Lake St. Martin to protect land there and the Dauphin River First Nation.

The 2013 PST hike dumps nearly another $300 million into provincial coffers annually, and yet not even the dikes east of Portage la Prairie have been readied.

Further, the provincial government's flood mitigation budgets for the next five years indicate a second Lake Manitoba outlet will not be built before 2020.

Manitobans will get through the floods of 2014, and then they will start asking Premier Greg Selinger some tough questions.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2014 A12

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