Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A vision without a paddle

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Winnipeg's city council is expected to approve an ambitious waterfront planning strategy later this month that envisions a network of river paths, scenic drives, pedestrian bridges, commercial development and housing along the Red River from St. Vital Park in the south to Kildonan Park in the north.

There is no dollar value attached to the plan because, at this point, it is merely a 20-year goal that would be used to guide growth in the future and to prevent development, such as a cement factory, that would be inconsistent with the vision of Winnipeg as a dynamic river city.

The draft document, Go to the Waterfront, is inspiring. It is difficult to imagine anyone objecting to its grand blueprint.

There's just one problem. Actually, a huge problem.

Many of the proposed developments and transportation corridors would be built close to the water, similar to The Forks, which rejected the idea of building farther back because planners wanted it to be close to the river.

As every Winnipegger knows, The Forks' waterfront is frequently unavailable for use in the spring and even in the summer because of flooding and high water levels.

There is a solution, however.

The Red River floodway could be used to control river levels in the city, an idea that was proposed by the Free Press more than 10 years ago, but which the NDP government has yet to take seriously.

Regulating the Red River would make it possible to build roads, sidewalks and housing developments without fear they would be swamped every few years.

Such a risk would be enough to give developers pause. And the city itself should question if it is worth the cost of cleaning up kilometres of riverside paths and scenic drives.

Former premier Gary Doer promised early in his first term to consider the solution, but nothing ever happened.

Premier Greg Selinger also pledged in 2009 to study the problem, but so far no information has been made public about a report that was supposed to be written on the subject.

The gates in the Red River in south Winnipeg have occasionally been used to back up water into the floodway to prevent extreme spring and summer flooding, but the province has been averse to using them to regulate river levels and protect riverbanks.

That's because such action would raise water levels south of the floodway, flooding private property. Some of the land in question is barren river bottom, but other portions are productive.

Obviously this land cannot be flooded artificially without compensation, either in the form of easements or outright purchase.

The cost-benefits of such a program, however, clearly favour regulation. While it might cost millions of dollars to compensate property owners for artificial flooding, the development opportunities for Winnipeg would easily be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

A regulated river would also reduce riverbank erosion, itself a $100-million problem.

The city's vision is all about economic development; it's about attracting new restaurants, businesses, recreational opportunities, housing and retail developments to the waterfront. But how and where these new buildings and amenities would be located will remain uncertain until the province decides how to regulate river levels.

An unregulated river, like we have now, would obviously limit opportunities and probably deter many good ideas. It's unlikely, for example, that someone would open a kayak rental business if high water was a regular problem during the business season. In fact, similar businesses have been barely hanging on because of perennial water problems.

Premier Selinger can end the uncertainty and ensure the success of the city's vision by turning the river into a regulated resource rather than an unpredictable menace.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2014 A12

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