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Drainage deal protects Assiniboine flow

Construction crews digging new outlet for Saskatchewan lake

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FISHING LAKE, SASK. -- At the east end of this obscure body of water in Saskatchewan's prairie pothole country, construction crews have started digging a new outlet in an attempt to lower lake levels which threaten hundreds of cottages.

Normally, the fate of recreational properties in the Wadena region would be of little consequence to Manitobans.

Flood Fight

But Fishing Lake drains into Hazel Lake, which drains into Usinneskaw Lake, Whitesand Lake, Dog Lake and Newburn.

Eventually, the whole chain drains into the Assiniboine River, which is expected to spill its banks this spring to a degree unseen in Manitoba since 1976.

And that brought tiny Fishing Lake to the forefront of intergovernmental relations agenda between Manitoba and Saskatchewan in February, when both parties struck a deal to allow the new $3.5-million channel to proceed.

The unusual agreement reached last month allows the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority to cut a new channel out of Fishing Lake in an effort to cut the time it takes to drain its floodwaters in half, according to project manager Jim Waggoner.

But the new channel can not contribute to Manitoba flooding, he added. It must be sealed if water flows on the Assiniboine River in western Manitoba get out of hand.

Unlike Devil's Lake, N.D., which has no natural outlet, Fishing Lake already drains into the Red River watershed. But the existing outflow isn't big enough to drain the lake in time to save hundreds of cottages and several dozen year-round residents, Waggoner said.

So the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority is digging a parallel channel and installing a control structure --basically, a trio of sealable culverts -- downstream at Hazel Lake.

The total capacity of both drains is 350 cubic feet per second (CFS), Waggoner said. The new drain will handle half of that flow, but only at first, when water levels are high.

That means the new drain is adding 175 CFS to the Assiniboine River. To put that number in context, the Assiniboine's flow in western Manitoba ranges from 200 CFS during a dry August to 25,000 CFS during a full-on spring flood.

"It's insignificant in the big picture," said Waggoner of the additional water. "But our agreement is designed to minimize the effects in Manitoba."

The deal demands the new culverts are sealed if the flow of the Assiniboine exceeds 1,400 CFS just south of the Shellmouth Dam, said Steve Topping, executive director of Manitoba Water Stewardship.

In 2007, when Saskatchewan first proposed a new drain that would have lowered the natural lake level, Manitoba objected to the project. The 2011 version is different in that the second drain is located above Fishing Lake's natural level, Waggoner said.

Manitoba also had no choice but to strike a deal because Ottawa may have allowed a drain to proceed without a control structure, said Topping, noting Saskatchewan declared an emergency in the region.

Nontheless, the deal has agitated some Manitoba farmers who are already preparing to battle floods.

Gene Nerbas, who farms cattle south of the Shellmouth Dam, claimed water levels on Fishing Lake would not be high if Saskatchewan farmers observed prudent land-management practices and stopped draining wetlands.

"By agreeing, Manitoba is sanctioning illegal drainage in Saskatchewan," he charged.

Fishing Lake First Nation Chief Allan Paquachan said he too opposes the drain, albeit on the grounds his Saulteaux community -- which sits on the west side of the lake -- was not consulted about the hydrological changes to its traditional fishing area.

In any case, Manitoba's chief flood forecaster said he understands the angst.

"When river levels are already high, any small amount can be the difference in a flood," Phillip Mutulu said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2011 A5

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