In recent days and weeks, the floods of 2011 and 2012 have again been in the news and not just because key task-force reports were released on April 5, nor because of the protest at the opening of the Portage Diversion.
There was much angst about spending on snacks for flood victims, and unpaid hotel bills for flood evacuees. The provincial and federal governments have been engaged in very public squabbles about who will pay for what, and whether claimed expenses are legitimate.
But the headline that has been missing is the most important: Nearly 2,000 Manitobans are still out of their homes two years later. We wouldn't be talking about snacks and hotel bills if the flood victims were back in their communities.
Most, but not all, are members of Lake St. Martin First Nation. They were evacuated on May 8, 2011, just before floodwaters claimed their community. They are still out of their homes and do not know when or even where they will go home.
Lake St. Martin is a long way from Winnipeg. It sits between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg about 300 kilometres northwest of the city. Despite that great distance, the communities between the two big lakes, including Lake St. Martin First Nation, have been collateral damage to the flood infrastructure that has protected southern Manitobans for the last half-century.
The First Nations communities were the first affected by the flood of 2011. And they will be the last to go home.
This tragedy began not in 2011 but more than 50 years ago with the construction of the Fairford Water Control Structure on Lake Manitoba.
In the mid-1950s, years of high water on Lake Manitoba led to the construction of an expanded outlet on the Fairford River. It increased outflows in high-water years and reduced outflows in low-water years. By solving one problem, it created another for people downstream.
Lake St. Martin receives the water from Lake Manitoba via the Fairford River. That water then exits Lake St. Martin via the Dauphin River draining into Lake Winnipeg. Lake St. Martin is about 1/13th the size of Lake Manitoba, thus small changes in water level on the big lake result in big changes in water level on the small lake.
Both flooding and drought became more frequent on Lake St. Martin after the Fairford structure was opened in 1961. The problem grew much worse when the Portage Diversion was opened in 1970. It increased inflows to Lake Manitoba substantially, resulting in even greater flooding on Lake St. Martin.
The people of Lake St. Martin, which has been present since at least the mid-1800s, have relied upon fishing, hunting and trapping. The increased frequency of flood and drought since the 1960s has increasingly interfered with their traditional way of life that is intimately linked to the surrounding land and water. It is much more than just a place to build houses.
The disaster that occurred for the Lake St. Martin, Little Saskatchewan, Dauphin River and Pinaymootang First Nations communities serves to shine a bright light on historic problems that must be solved. The First Nations were not consulted on the construction of the water-control structures that benefit others at heavy cost to themselves.
This problem was identified in the Lake Manitoba Lake St. Martin Regulation Review, the task force led by Harold Westdal that was commissioned after the 2011/12 floods. Regarding new water-control structures to prevent future flooding, the task force was of the opinion "that no new works will be undertaken for either Lake Manitoba or Lake St. Martin without the effective approval of the First Nations below the Fairford River Water Control Structure."
Ever since the control structure was built, water levels have fluctuated widely in Lake St. Martin. Desirable water levels for Lake St. Martin range between 797 feet and 800 feet above sea level. Over the last two decades, the lake has been inside this range less than 40 per cent of the time. In 2011, Lake St. Martin rose to historic levels 2.5 feet above the level reached during floods in the 1950s.
Even the "emergency" channel built in the aftermath of the flooding to drain water from Lake St. Martin has not solved this larger problem. It opened in November 2011, and closed in November 2012. It did lower Lake St. Martin back to its operating range -- for about eight weeks.
The lake was below 800 feet from late September to late November 2012. Since then, the lake rose to 801.5 feet in February 2013, just below the flood stage of 801.7 feet and remains above 800 feet today. It may exceed flood stage again in coming weeks.
Solving water-management issues on Lake St. Martin is central to solving water-management issues upstream and is the long-term problem.
The short-term problem is getting the residents of Lake St. Martin back home. That an entire community of Manitobans is still displaced two years later is a travesty and a failure of our political leaders.
Federal and provincial politicians have clearly been passing the buck back and forth. At times it has been petty and small-minded. Leaders within the affected communities have been less than perfect, too. There is blame enough to go around. That said, all parties need to focus attention on the immediate and urgent goal: to get nearly 2,000 people back home.
And if our current politicians cannot get this job done, then maybe we need new ones.
Lake St. Martin First Nation needs to choose the location of a new community: The old community site has been ravaged by increased flooding ever since the Fairford structure opened. They will need to find higher ground. But if anyone thinks that someone else is going to choose the site for them, they are sadly mistaken.
The long and sordid history of relocating First Nations in Manitoba ensures this will not happen again. As I write these words, the Peguis and Fisher River First Nations, peoples relocated from traditional lands both north and south, are preparing to defend themselves from yet another round of flooding this spring.
The children of the Lake St. Martin First Nation now attend school in Winnipeg and wonder why they cannot go home. They are our fellow Manitobans and their homes, their school, their church, their community were sacrificed to benefit others. If they come to learn that the same people who benefited turned their back on them when it was time to right a wrong, that would be unforgivable.
On the weekend, I attended the Manitoba school science symposium where I saw award-winning projects by children from Little Saskatchewan and Fisher River First Nations. The theme of their projects? The effect of flooding on water quality and the environment in their communities. Is that the legacy we want to leave?
Scott Forbes is an ecologist at the University of Winnipeg and was among the many affected by the flood on Lake Manitoba.