Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

River levels must be controlled

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The flooding on the Assiniboine River this year has raised levels through Winnipeg, as well, swamping banks and making the few amenities this city enjoys on its notable waterways all but unusable. This is how it will stay for the summer, perhaps seeing some relief when the river walk at The Forks surfaces again nearer the fall, when tourists are all gone and Winnipeggers are back to school and work-a-day routines.

A small illustration of the economic impact is the fate of water taxis and riverboats that have never been able to exploit fully the rivers' potential. This year, the river bus and a cruise ship have both seen their business truncated -- the MS River Rouge is unable to get onto the Red River. Meanwhile the paddlewheel boat has folded business entirely, in part due to successive years of high water. But these are simply the evident impacts in a city that makes only limited use of its rivers.

It has been pointed out the best way to dispel the myth this is a river city is to take a tour (when possible) down the Assiniboine and Red, to see the city from the water up, so to speak. The banks are largely devoid of human activity, trees tumble into the depths, their roots undermined by constant rise and fall of the rivers' uncontrolled flows and levels. There is limited access to the riverbanks at the best of times and erosion is an abiding, expensive threat to public and private property.

The potential for a more vibrant waterfront life can contribute to the livability of the city, and stoke the economy with local and tourist dollars. This is what first-class, modern cities do but neither the city council nor the provincial government has given the riverbanks due attention.

Premier Greg Selinger has said he intends, eventually, to live up to his campaign promise to control the river levels by more aggressive use of the Red River Floodway, which underwent a $700-million expansion following the 1997 Flood of the Century. At the time, some people thought broadly about how to make best recreational and commercial use of the new life for this massive piece of public infrastructure, but talk is pretty much as far as that got.

The new crushed limestone trail along the floodway is a beautiful addition to the landscape -- more people should explore it. But hiking and biking make for limited use of what the floodway could offer, including control of the rivers in Winnipeg (the floodway can help control the effect of a rising Assiniboine River, as well) to help reduce erosion while opening up a variety of new uses on the banks and of the waterways, too. Some have pointed, for example, to the shops and amenities that dot the riverfronts of other North American cities, including turning streets that run from rivers into canals.

The review of the floodway (another flood control structure) regulation rules has been delayed, as the province deals with the spring flooding on the Assiniboine that once again triggered diversion of water into Lake Manitoba and emergency shoring of dikes east of Portage la Prairie.

The 2014 flood underscores the new reality a changing climate is likely to bring higher river levels more frequently. For its part, the province says past summer floods have shown the floodway itself cannot completely keep the Forks river walk from being submersed.

Changing the rules for operation, for a more expansive use of the floodway regardless of flooding, may involve significant compensation to property owners and businesses upstream on the Red, who will be affected when water is shunted away from Winnipeg into Duff's Ditch. The managers at The Forks, one of this city's premiere attractions, can easily quantify the lost revenue of successive years of high water levels that swamped the river walk and deterred visitors to the historic site.

But the thinking must go well beyond this isolated example of lost opportunity.

The benefits and potential for commercial and recreational activity cannot be fathomed until the province and the city come together to imagine Winnipeg's riverbanks and waters as new avenues of enjoyment. This must be a part of planning as Manitoba scales up infrastructure to meet a changing climate and protect property and people from flooding.

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 August 8, 2014 A10

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