We’re all wet: Flood of 2011 was not that unusual after all, researcher argues


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Back in the 1800s, when European settlers arrived in the Red River Valley, these early Manitobans tried to establish farms on a landscape that wasn't exactly what most people would consider land.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/01/2012 (4049 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Back in the 1800s, when European settlers arrived in the Red River Valley, these early Manitobans tried to establish farms on a landscape that wasn’t exactly what most people would consider land.

A broad expanse of southern Manitoba occupies the former bed of Lake Agassiz, a glacial body of water that disappeared only about 8,000 years ago. That’s a mere eyeblink when it comes to geological time.

The receding lake left behind a very wet and highly variable landscape, where seasonal fluctuations in rain and snowfall determine whether a given chunk of space looks like a field, marsh or lake in any given year.

Joe Bryksa / Winnipeg Free Press Archives A worker takes a break at the Kapyong Barracks where over 600,000 sandbags are to be sent West to help fight the flood on the Assiniboine River in 2011.

Despite this variability, settlers and surveyors tried to determine what was land and what was water. And when their efforts didn’t conform to the soggy realities of perennial overland flooding, they proceeded to try to drain as much of this land as possible.

Beginning in earnest in the 1880s, farmers in southern Manitoba began cutting drains along and across their properties, at first using horse-drawn implements. This practice gave way to more systematic cuts organized by government-sanctioned drainage districts, using hydraulic machines capable of cutting through the landscape on a much more massive scale.

By the 1920s, many of the larger wetlands in southern Manitoba, including the Boyne and Tobacco Creek marshes southwest of Winnipeg and Big Grass Marsh north of Gladstone, had all but disappeared.

But overland and river flooding continued to play havoc with not just agricultural, but the maintenance of a regional road system that was crucial to the economic development of the relatively new Canadian province. And this flooding continues today, even after small armies of earth-moving machines excavated high-volume drainage canals such as the Red River Floodway, the Portage Diversion and the new $100-million Lake St. Martin Emergency Channel.

According to conventional conceptions of Manitoba’s early history, this province was born out of conflict between competing interests: Nor’westers vs. Hudson’s Bay men, Assiniboine vs. Dakota, Métis vs. Red River Settlers or the Citizen’s Committee vs. the Trades and Labour Union, to name a few competing groups.

But in a convincing and provocative rethinking of the province’s early years, Winnipeg-raised environmental historian Shannon Stunden Bower suggests the establishment of drainage created other conflicts and played an equally crucial role in creating the political and economic basis for a modern Manitoba.

In her exhaustively researched new book Wet Prairie: People, Land and Water in Agricultural Manitoba, the University of Alberta post-doctoral fellow chronicles how this province has always struggled with the competing responsibility to create drainage to protect upstream private property — and deal with the consequences of that drainage on other private interests downstream.

The first European settlers demanded the right to drain and soon expected all three levels of government — which had advertised the property as suitable for farming — to help them in this effort. But people living downstream argued they were being flooded by unnatural alteration of the landscape. Meanwhile, all three levels of government bickered among themselves over their responsibility.

Similar dynamics play out today, when Lake Manitoba residents complain of elevated water levels due to the Portage Diversion, which was built to prevent the Assiniboine River from threatening Winnipeg. Or when the Red River Floodway is operated, protecting Winnipeg but flooding farms and acreages upstream.

And Manitobans still struggle with the question of who is responsible — individual property owners or government — for various aspects of flood mitigation, recovery and compensation.

Dozens of cottages at Delta Beach were destroyed by high waters on Lake Manitoba. Trying to control the water situation in the province "might create a whole other series of problems," says Shannon Stunden Bower.

“The flood story will never go away,” said the 34-year-old Stunden Bower, who grew up in a Kingston Row home heavily affected by the 1997 Red River flood.

She obtained a doctorate in geography from the University of British Columbia and has spent years researching Manitoba’s agricultural history, which she hopes will inform some understanding of the province today.

The results of her research are condensed into Wet Prairie, which hit academic bookshelves in June. From her vantage point in Edmonton, she watched the events of the 2011 flood unfold and blogged about them, at one point questioning the provincial claim that the scale of the recent deluge was unprecedented.

“It may be more accurate to argue that this is a flood without precedent since extensive agricultural and urban settlement in the province of Manitoba,” Stunden Bower wrote in May, shortly after the province made the controversial Hoop and Holler cut.

At the time, the province was still in emergency-management mode. The Free Press finally caught up to Stunden Bower in December, with the flood still on everyone’s mind.

Free Press: We’ve been dealing with flooding in Manitoba since Day One. Other than removing people from the flood plain, how is it possible to manage drainage on such a massive scale?

Shannon Stunden Bower: One of the problems is how we think about flooding. A lot of people are understandably so frustrated. This flooding has been a problem forever, so why haven’t we solved it?

But the solving of flooding is a year-to-year problem. It’s an ongoing question of adaptation, rather than a solution to a problem that can be enacted and we can move on from there. It’s a more iterative kind of thing.


FP: Is it hubris to believe we can solve flooding by digging giant ditches and building other megaprojects?

SSB: You can certainly change the water situation, there’s no question about that. Environmental history would suggest you’re probably not going to end up with the landscape you’re hoping to create. You might create a whole other series of problems as well. Water is hard to control; it’s unco-operative in a whole bunch of ways.


FP: You mean water won’t flow where you expect it to flow, or you just can’t predict what will happen on a watershed scale?

SSB: Both, I guess. And also the human consequences are hard to predict, particularly as they change over time. As the human geography changes around the water patterns, an area that might have seemed unoccupied and a good repository for water might become a landscape of interest for some reason. So you have these two shifting parameters.


FP: You use the term “wet prairie” in an effort to get people to rethink the way we conceive of agricultural land in southern Manitoba. Instead of drawing a line, saying, “this is land, and this is water,” you’re encouraging us to look at it as one big wetland.

SSB: I wanted to prompt people in Manitoba, who are very familiar with the flood problem, to think about the fact a lot of the land is made to be dry as best we can. It used to be wetland. It still is wet, sometimes. That’s just its nature.

The flip side is, I was also hoping to encourage people more broadly — nationally, across the prairies and even internationally — to recognize the Canadian Prairies, which people often think of as dry and afflicted by drought, also have this wet area with its own distinctive problem.

So it’s not dryness that characterizes the Prairies. Maybe it’s water. It’s a question of too much and too little.

Shannon Stunden Bower argues that drainage problems -- and attempted solutions -- have played a crucial role in Manitoba politics.


FP: You chronicle how a century ago, various levels of government were running around, rather arbitrarily defining areas as usable or not usable and deciding what’s normal and not normal in terms of water. We still have these discussions today. It all seems sort of ridiculous when there is no baseline.

SSB: That’s the thing that can be hard to get through your head. This is a profoundly altered landscape. There’s no going back to how it used to be. There’s no real understanding of what that would mean.

It’s a question of human values, at this point. It’s a question we have to ask ourselves in relation to how we as a society choose to live in this place.


FP: Early this year, the provincial government described this flood as unprecedented in its scale. Given what you document in your book, I don’t know if I buy that anymore.

SSB: When I hear that, I try to listen to what the government is trying to convey. They’re saying this isa huge disaster which threatens a lot of people, and we need to deal with it. That’s a really honest sentiment, and I don’t want to undercut that, because it’s valid.

But it’s not unprecedented. These are things that have happened here for years and years and years and will continue to happen.


FP: What can we take from history? We continue to build massive public works projects to deal with flooding. We’ve built another giant trench, and we’re talking about the possibility of building more dams. Do you have any policy advice?

SSB: Oh, boy. Broadly, it’s important to try to understand the line between human responsibility and independent environmental actions, to the extent those can be separated in this profoundly altered landscape. We can only expect people to take responsibility for so much, and then the water will take it from there, regardless of our best efforts.

You were talking about hubris. Maybe we could use humility as a counterpart. We all need to understand the limitations of what we hope to achieve here.

If we can’t control the water, and we can’t make homes and farms and cities safe, then we also need to have an understanding that there’s a huge range of reasons — good historical reasons — why people live in this place. It’s not solely the product of individual choices for which individuals should take sole responsibility.

So I think any policy should include the expectation that the province will have to offer generous and sympathetic and non-judgmental assistance to people who are afflicted by flooding.


FP: Should people even live here? I’m not arguing we should all leave, but I am questioning the intensity of urban and agricultural development in southern Manitoba.

SSB: One way to solve the problem is to get the people out of the way of the water, which is interesting to think about, but it’s not going to happen.

The best we can do is come up with solutions, some of them in terms of infrastructure and some of them in terms of policy, to help people who have ended up here through a collection of individual choices and social processes for which they do not bear responsibility.


Winnipeg Free Press Winnipeg 1950 flood

FP: But there’s almost an absence of memory here. After 1997, for example, nobody was going to build on the flood plain again. Now it’s bang, bang, bang all the way along the valley.

SSB: That’s another challenge, for anybody who cares about these things, is how do we cultivate that memory, that this is a place afflicted by flooding. One of the most vivid ways the City of Winnipeg has done this is at The Forks, where there’s the walk where you can descend below the flood levels. You can walk past the line of the 1950 flood before you go down toward the river walk itself. That’s a really vivid example of public history that can help cultivate some memory of our vulnerability here. There’s a real value in more projects of that kind.

FP: The digging of drainage ditches in Manitoba started with horse-drawn implements. We then graduated to hydraulic machines. Now we build these massive trenches. We keep moving to a larger scale. Does that contribute to the false sense of permanence people have about what is land and what is water?

SSB: I think so. That’s the promise that these projects carry with them: “This is the problem we’re going to solve, and this is how we’re going to solve it.” It’s hard to get around that. How do you say: “We’re going to expend all this effort, spend all this money on this large project, and it might improve things a little bit?” You can understand why people build rhetorical power into these things to get these projects accomplished.

It certainly isn’t as if they haven’t made any difference. The (Red River) Floodway has made an enormous difference to the city of Winnipeg. Of course it’s had real, negative consequences for people who’ve seen a backwater effect.

It’s a challenge to balance the effort to make this place as livable as possible for the people who are here, for better and for worse, while remembering we have to live with the inherent vulnerability of the river systems that run through Manitoba.


FP: Nobody likes to accept the reality flooding is a permanent aspect of this place, especially with increased climate variability. There’s no guarantee what we saw (in 2011) isn’t going to happen more frequently. Climate-change models for the centre of the continent don’t call for colder or warmer weather, but crazier weather.

SSB: There’s sort of an opportunity for Winnipeg and Manitoba to lead some of the dialogue about adapting to climate change. Here’s a place that’s been dealing with vulnerability in a real in-your-face kind of way, for a lot longer than other places. As we think about adaptation to climate change, more places are going to be confronted with the sort of dilemmas that have always faced Manitoba, not necessarily in terms of water, but in terms of other environmental vulnerability.

Winnipeg Free Press Winnipeg 1950 flood


FP: So we’re at the cutting edge of accommodating environmental disaster.

SSB: Lucky us.


This interview has been edited and condensed.


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