Premier Greg Selinger is sounding the alarm about the risk of widespread flooding this spring and has already put Prime Minister Stephen Harper on notice about the looming threat.

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This article was published 1/12/2010 (3975 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Provincial officials fear a repeat of scenes like this from 1997's massive flooding that left many areas south of Winnipeg under water.

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES

Provincial officials fear a repeat of scenes like this from 1997's massive flooding that left many areas south of Winnipeg under water.

Premier Greg Selinger is sounding the alarm about the risk of widespread flooding this spring and has already put Prime Minister Stephen Harper on notice about the looming threat.

Much of the soil in southern Manitoba is still saturated from unprecedented summer and fall rain, meaning if the snow melts too quickly in April it can't be absorbed by the ground.

It's the same in North Dakota, where Fargo is experiencing its 10th-wettest fall on record.

That moisture in the ground -- more of a threat than the piles of snow above it -- has provincial flood fighters fearing we could see a spring flood on the scale of the Flood of the Century in 1997.

That year, a large area south of Winnipeg was covered in water and the army had to be called in to help.

"I wanted the prime minister to know about it, because it's something we need to be on top of," Selinger said Wednesday. "We're also looking at what additional resources we're going to need."

He said while it's still too early to predict a spring flood, adding to the concern is the amount of snow that fell so quickly last month.

With a couple of major dumps in November, Winnipeg has already seen more than two-thirds of the total amount of snow that fell last winter.

Meanwhile, water-filled culverts outside the city have already started freezing, creating the potential for overland flooding when the snow melts and there's simply nowhere for the runoff to go.

"The ground is saturated and there's lots of early snow," Selinger said. "We're off to a start that makes us realize that we need early planning. Early planning lets people take a look at where the risks are... where the hot spots are in Manitoba."

Selinger said he wrote to Harper because emergency measures are handled jointly by the two levels of government. Ottawa has also been involved in some of the flood-protection initiatives in southern Manitoba since the 1997 flood.

That same planning is happening south of the border, where river flows were already higher than normal before winter kicked in.

The Fargo Forum website reported this week eight of the 14 wettest falls on record in Fargo have been followed by major spring floods. Fargo's wettest fall on record was in 2008, which preceded the 2009 Red River flood that nearly deluged that North Dakota city.

Selinger said flood fighters are watching all areas of the province where there's been a lot of rainfall during the summer and fall. From May to September -- the wettest period in 30 years -- precipitation for southern Manitoba and the Interlake was 160 per cent above normal. That doesn't include the late-October storm that dumped up to 85 millimetres of rain.

Steve Topping, executive director of the infrastructure and operations division of Manitoba Water Stewardship, said the spring flood potential is high, simply because the ground is so soggy.

"We could have normal winter snowpack now and still get a significant flood," he said.

Selinger also said additional money in the spring budget may be aimed at the flood fight.

The province has already amassed a huge number of tube dams -- dams filled with water that double as sandbag dikes -- to protect low-lying homes and properties.

Rural municipalities have also purchased special torches to unfreeze culverts so spring runoff doesn't back up.

The province is also looking at buying a third, larger Amphibex icebreaking machine that in summer months can double as a river and lake dredger.

Provincial officials have said they'll have a better idea of spring flood conditions in February or early March when they know how thick river ice is and how it will break up in the spring. Icebreaking operations on the Red River north of Winnipeg start in March.

Officials from Manitoba and the U.S. meet Jan. 18 in Fargo to talk about long-term flood prevention and other issues at the 28th annual Red River Basin Land and Water International Summit Conference.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca