Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No more excuses, Minister Ashton

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THE historic flood of 2011 was unlike anything seen or recorded in Manitoba previously. Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton insists natural conditions overwhelmed provincial government resources, that no amount of forecasting could have prepared for what came down the Assiniboine River. In fact, a report released Friday found the province's forecasting centre was badly hobbled and produced some poor predictions. That was most evident at Lake Manitoba and Souris.

For many years, the centre was essentially a one-man show, but Alf Warkentin retired in 2010. Mr. Warkentin had an art for accurate forecasts. There was poor succession planning and, in 2011, two inexperienced forecasters were working with old technology ill-suited to the job. Manitoba's forecast model, based on snow melt, can't produce reliable rain runoff predictions -- a handicap since most of Manitoba's largest floods result from rainfall.

In 2011, ground saturation and heavy snowfall caused the forecasters to warn early of a flood risk. They overestimated the threat of the Red and then underestimated the Assiniboine. Heavy spring rains confounded the challenge in western Manitoba, with forecasters developing rainfall-runoff models on the fly.

Defences on the lower Assiniboine were inadequate. The dikes, raised and reinforced east of Portage la Prairie, leaked, triggering the diversion that flooded Lake Manitoba with catastrophic results for people there and around Lake St. Martin.

The report made sweeping recommendations -- updating forecast technology, perhaps choosing a new model. It recommended increasing storage on tributaries, building a controlled "wasteway" on the Assiniboine (like the temporary Hoop and Holler cut) and formalizing agreements with Saskatchewan and the U.S., where a lot of forecast data is derived.

But asked why the forecast centre was nearly incapacitated by one retirement, Mr. Ashton said Mr. Warkentin's tenure predated him. Yet it has been his responsibility since 2011 to ensure forecasters have the tools adequate for the job. Warning of rising flood risk this year, Mr. Ashton assured the forecast model now integrates rainfall runoff. Minutes later, however, his deputy minister clarified that data still need to be manually collected and "cut and pasted" into the modeling.

That is untenable. Forecasting is the foundation upon which flood preparations are based. Manitoba must modernize its forecasting capacity with sophisticated, high-tech data collection and management. No more excuses, Mr. Ashton.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 A16

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