By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman
NEEPAWA, Man. — In August 2011, I toured the west side of Lake Manitoba with then MLA Stu Briese. Months after the spring runoff, lake levels were still high and the flooding was widespread. A wet fall, snowy winter and wet spring combined to create spring flooding across the province. Around Lake Manitoba, there was an extra, unnatural factor, the Portage Diversion. Designed to handle 25,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), the diversion’s capacity was amped up to 35,000 cfs to protect more valuable crops and properties along the Assiniboine east of Portage. In 2011, the Portage Diversion was in operation for 125 days, significantly more than any other year since 1970, and handled 4.77 million-acre feet of water, close to double the second highest volume.
These factors combined to raise the lake level by five feet, a significant increase in an area characterized by flat landscapes- there was lake five or more miles inland from its usual shores. While the diversion pumps water in at a rapid pace, there is no corresponding outlet. It took years of drought to bring water levels back to normal. It took until 2015 for the federal and provincial governments to commit to the construction of a permanent outlet to replace the emergency one cut in 2011.
While the flooding was called a natural disaster, it wasn’t really. Provincial officials were worried that the banks along the Assiniboine wouldn’t hold and property owners around Lake Manitoba were intentionally flooded. It was a calculated tradeoff, but those flooded weren’t recognized for their sacrifice. The Assiniboine River doesn’t naturally drain into Lake Manitoba and while there was some compensation, no one was truly made whole or fully recognized for seeing their homes and livelihoods underwater.
Last week, a provincial review of the guidelines governing Manitoba’s flood control infrastructure was made public. The authors looked at the impact of past flooding and made recommendations for future operations of flood mitigation infrastructure. A lot has changed since the diversion began operating in the 1970s, there are competing interests and a more widespread lack of understanding about agriculture. In the end, the review called for a better balance between the needs of those living along Lake Manitoba and those living on the lower portions of the Assiniboine River.
The report noted something those farming around the lake know, the difference between quickly receding river flooding and long-lasting lake flooding. The report noted, “The impact [of increased flows] on the lower Assiniboine is immediate and observable, but the long-term impact of accumulated diversion volumes may be greater on Lake Manitoba.”
The changes proposed in the report will spread the impact of flooding a little more equitably. The original operating objectives for the Portage Diversion state that operation of the diversion shouldn’t increase Lake Manitoba levels beyond 812.87 feet above sea level, but the current operating guidelines don’t take lake levels into account in the decision to operate the diversion. The proposed changes would tie the maximum desirable flow in the lower Assiniboine River to Lake Manitoba levels, as well as the river level in Winnipeg. The Panel proposed that if levels on Lake Manitoba are forecast to remain below 813 feet, then the current rules should be maintained. If Lake Manitoba levels are forecast to peak above 813 feet, the decision-making is based on a balance of interests.
However, if Lake Manitoba levels are near or at flood stage, then as much flow as can safely be handled should be sent down the lower Assiniboine. The report’s authors note that this proposed change will undoubtedly aggravate flooding on the lower Assiniboine River, but it also recognizes that under unregulated conditions, all the flow would continue down the Assiniboine River, resulting in widespread flooding. They note, “this operating guideline change is an attempt to share the pain.”
For many who looked out to see a sea of water where there was grass, sharing the pain is something they’d like to see.