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Opinion

Grading the parties on flood protection

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESs fileS</p><p>Damage from 2011 flooding of Lake Manitoba can be seen from the air at Delta Beach.</p></p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESs fileS

Damage from 2011 flooding of Lake Manitoba can be seen from the air at Delta Beach.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/4/2016 (1422 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A major challenge for the next government is flood protection. The catastrophic flood of 2011 that extended into 2012 was the most expensive in Manitoba history.

We are still paying for it today, and it derailed any plans the Selinger government had to balance the budget this decade. Flood costs rose higher with another major flood in 2014.

In the wake of these disasters, the Selinger government conducted an extensive review of flood-protection options. When the report was tabled, a menu of recommendations with a price tag of more than $1 billion was presented. The next government will decide which of these to build and when. What are the announced policies of the three parties to do so?

The record of the current government is clear.

Premier Greg Selinger and his point man on the flood file, Steve Ashton, talk a great deal about flood protection. Ashton proudly declares that: "We are the get ’er done government." But in truth very little has gotten done.

The most significant achievement has been additional flood protection for Brandon. This was clearly needed, but we didn’t need to increase the PST to do that, as Selinger has repeatedly claimed.

For the flood victims of 2011-12 and 2014, very little has been done with flood infrastructure. The so-called emergency channel that drains Lake St. Martin doesn’t help Lake Manitoba, the epicentre of 2011 flooding, and it raises the ire of local residents. The only major investment in infrastructure on Lake Manitoba so far is an expansion of the Portage Diversion that makes future flooding not less, but more likely.

On the plus side, the government did conduct a thorough review of flood-protection options, and has talked a great deal about building some of them. But talk is cheap while flood protection is not.

Selinger has cynically continued to use flood protection as political cover for the PST increase that raises nearly $300 million annually. But to date, almost none of this has been spent on flood protection. And there are currently no plans for shovels in the ground in the foreseeable future to prevent a repeat of 2011 and 2014.

Grade for the NDP: D

The Manitoba Liberals have committed to building a Lake Manitoba outlet. But how big is not clear, as the price tag they quote ranges from $200 to $450 million, both less than the current estimate of an appropriately sized outlet ($495 million). The Liberals also declare they will only build it after the budget is balanced, some time in the early 2020s. This translates into: "Yes we will build something, maybe something too small, and certainly not any time soon."

Their federal counterparts announced a quarter billion in infrastructure funding in the recent budget for a Lake Manitoba outlet: should a Bokhari government delay construction beyond the next federal election, it risks leaving this money on the table.

In sum, the declared Liberal policy is to pay lip service only to a problem that affects many rural Manitobans.

Grade for the Liberals: D

Mr. Pallister and the Progressive Conservatives last Wednesday announced the most aggressive policy on flood protection. Here, an outlet to Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin is the big-ticket item. Mr. Pallister promised to build it inside of five years, putting completion in the early 2020s. This is ambitious.

Too ambitious, according to Selinger. No sooner had Pallister made his announcement than he was criticized by Selinger for being unrealistic about the timeline. But this was the same timeline Selinger had announced (completion in the early 2020s) during lengthy public consultations on flood infrastructure. One wonders if the premier’s enthusiasm for flood protection has waned as memories of flooding have faded.

There are indeed strong headwinds facing anyone who desires to build a Lake Manitoba-Lake St. Martin outlet. If built and operated correctly, it would avert future floods such as those experienced in 2011 and 2014. The problem is not in the engineering but in the politics.

The outlet runs through the heart of traditional lands of four First Nations around Lake St. Martin and the Dauphin River. It can’t be built without their agreement.

As the relationship between the province and these First Nations has been poisoned by more than half a century of neglecting their concerns about flooding caused by the Fairford Water Control Structure and the Portage Diversion, this is no easy task.

Pallister may therefore be making a promise that is too ambitious. But he gets marks for trying.

Grade for the Progressive Conservatives: B

Scott Forbes is an ecologist at the University of Winnipeg with an interest in water-related issues. Getting an A is tough in his class.

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History

Updated on Monday, April 4, 2016 at 8:10 AM CDT: Photo added.

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