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Broken promises, rising waters

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BRANDON -- As Brandonites rush to prepare for a wall of water predicted to arrive sometime next week, a series of broken promises by provincial and local leaders has left the Wheat City almost as vulnerable to flooding today as it was three years ago.

In the aftermath of rains that pounded southeastern Saskatchewan and southwestern Manitoba last weekend, Manitoba government officials have predicted the Assiniboine River could approach or even exceed the same level and flow rate as was experienced in Brandon during the 2011 flood. That "high-water event" caused millions of dollars in damage and forced thousands of Brandonites to evacuate their homes and businesses.

Flood Fight

In May 2011, at the height of that flood, Premier Greg Selinger promised such an experience would never be repeated, committing $20 million for permanent one-in-300-year protection. Seven months later, he told the Brandon Sun "We are moving ahead with one-in-300-year flood protection. The tenders are out on that."

No tenders for dike construction had actually been issued; the engineering drawings had not even been completed. Those drawings, which sought to provide all of Brandon with one-in-300 year protection against flooding, were unveiled by the province in April 2012, with completion projected for that fall.

Two months later, however, it was revealed that the City of Brandon had assumed responsibility for the project's design and management and a revised plan was being prepared.

On July 2, 2013, when pressed to justify the PST increase, Selinger responded that "When we listened to Manitobans, they told us they want to be protected from flooding, which is why we spent a billion dollars in the Red River Valley and extended the flood protection around the city of Winnipeg to one-in-700-year protection."

"We're now offering the same protection to the people of Lake Manitoba, Lake St. Martin, Brandon and the Assiniboine valley ..."

While it appeared the PST hike would pay for one-in-700-year flood protection for Brandon, that hope died a few hours later, when city council unveiled a flood protection plan that would not even provide one-in-300-year flood-proofing for the entire city. The completion date was pushed back to the fall of 2013 and, subsequently, the fall of 2014.

The story changed yet again last Friday, when it was announced that the city, provincial and federal governments have agreed to fund a $27-million project that will provide Brandon with one-in-300 flood protection -- the same promise as was made in 2011, but with a higher price tag and a smaller provincial funding contribution. No target date for completion has been specified.

In the past three years, Brandon has been promised one-in-300 protection for the entire city, then one-in-700-year, then a plan that would provide one-in-300 protection for only part of the city. Now there is a new one-in-300 plan. The completion date has shifted from 2012 to 2013 to 2014, to some undefined point in the future.

If Selinger's 2011 promise had been kept, Brandonites would be high and dry, and watching the swollen Assiniboine flow by. Instead, they are bracing for their second "high-water event" in just 38 months.

After a community experiences a one-in-300-year flood, many incorrectly assume there are 299 years to prepare for the next one. Does that explain the lack of urgency on the part of the Selinger government and of Brandon's mayor and council?

Did they each assume they had plenty of time to get the necessary flood protection measures in place before the next big one?

If they did, that would suggest they learned little from the recent floods elsewhere in Canada. It would mean they ignored repeated warnings that the decades-old flood-projection models for the Assiniboine are no longer accurate, and delays in delivering enhanced flood protection would expose Brandon to significant risk.

By ignoring those warnings, those leaders gambled with the well-being and property of Brandonites. If the current flood projections are accurate, they are in danger of losing that bet.

There will be financial consequences for Manitoba's taxpayers if that happens. There should also be electoral consequences for those politicians who failed to complete the permanent flood protection work when they had the opportunity to do so.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Twitter: @deverynross

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2014 A11

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