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Shovels in the Forecast: Jackman-Atkinson

February 4, 2017 8:14 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman

Snow Stuck

People push a stuck car after two days of snow in Winnipeg, Wednesday, December 7, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)

NEEPAWA, Man. — If I were a store owner in Westman, I would be thinking about stocking up on rubber boots — it looks like demand might be strong this spring. On Monday, the provincial government released their most recent flood update and it’s looking wet. The report pointed to higher levels of soil moisture going into winter, higher levels of winter precipitation and unfavourable weather conditions in making their forecast.

While there is still a few months of uncertainty regarding weather and melt rates, Infrastructure Minister Blaine Pedersen announced that there is a risk of moderate to major overland flooding across the province. It’s not looking good for southwest Manitoba, in particular, as the Red, Souris, Pembina, Lower Assiniboine and Roseau rivers, as well as the southwest region of the province in general, are reported to be at risk for major flooding.

When preparing spring flood forecasts, researchers look at six primary factors: soil moisture at freeze-up, winter snow, spring rain, how fast the snow melts, the depth of frost and river and lake levels prior to spring run-off. All but the first factor are still unknown, but we do know that so far, there has been a lot of snow this winter and at this point, much of it has melted and gone somewhere.

Flooding is a touchy subject, especially around Lake Manitoba. It’s hard to forget the devastation of seeing water up to five miles in from its usual shores; seeing standing water in farmers’ fields, cattails growing where there was grass. No one wants to see that again.

Last fall, a review of the province’s flood control guidelines was made public. The review looked at the impact of past flooding and made recommendations for the future operation of flood mitigation infrastructure. One of the important acknowledgements in the report is the extent to which farmers around Lake Manitoba were hurt by flooding that shouldn’t have impacted them.

The Assiniboine River shouldn’t flow into Lake Manitoba, but the Portage Diversion, built in the 1970s, diverts water that would otherwise flow east into Winnipeg, north into the lake. Designed to handle 25,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), in 2011, up to 35,000 cfs were flowing through the diversion. That year, the 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. With no corresponding outlet, the impact was devastating.

Residents around the lake, who looked out on the water for months and in some cases, years, were never really made whole. The damage was exacerbated by the fact that quickly receding river flooding has a different impact than long-lasting lake flooding. This was noted in the report, “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 report made the recommendation that the operating guidelines of the diversion should take into account lake levels. To my knowledge, this hasn’t yet been implemented, but many hope it will at least be considered come spring.

With dry summers and no major spring flooding since 2011, provincial governments could get away with not doing anything about the long needed outlet. But maybe not for long.

In March 2016, the since elected Progressive Conservative Party announced during the campaign that an outlet to alleviate flooding around Lake Manitoba would be one of their top priorities. “Manitobans living around Lake Manitoba have waited far too long for relief,” said party leader and now Premier Brian Pallister. “A PC government will make it a top priority to stop the delays and get shovels in the ground.” To date, no shovels have been seen, but this might be the time to make good on that promise.