By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Neepawa Banner & Press
In the more than 13 years I’ve been covering the news in the Neepawa area, one of the handfuls of stories that have really stuck with me took place in the summer of 2011. In August of that year, I spent a day with then-MLA, the late Stu Briese. Stu and I travelled from north of the Narrows, down the west side of Lake Manitoba, to talk to those who had recently seen their homes and livelihoods impacted by flooding.
For those who don’t remember, during the spring and summer of 2011, Lake Manitoba rose by five feet — a significant increase in an area that doesn’t have much elevation. People who lived miles from the lake found themselves with lakefront property. I saw a lot of fences underwater.
Some of the pain was unavoidable, there was spring flooding across the province, as a wet fall, snowy winter and wet spring made for high levels of runoff. There was another factor at play though for those around Lake Manitoba. To protect properties to the east, the Portage Diversion was in operation for 125 days, dumping about 4.77 million acre-feet of water from the Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba, with no way, beyond evaporation, for the water to get out.
In September of 2012, I again toured the west side of the lake. While dry conditions meant that the water had receded, area farmers, ranchers and business owners were in limbo, as they awaited clarity from the government about what, and how much, would be covered by compensation. Had they not been flooded, the water would have followed its natural course, through Winnipeg and into the Red River.
Will we see this again? I hope not.
I was nervous last fall, as we were inundated with rain. A summer’s worth in about a month. Today, much of that water is gone, having replenished groundwater supplies taxed by two years of drought. Some warm days have also melted much of the snow that covered the fields a month ago, leaving less to melt come spring.
Right now, we might not see a need for widespread sandbagging. Last week, the province issued its first flood forecast of the year and at this point, the Assiniboine River is expected to remain within its banks. However, operation of the Portage Diversion is expected and just how much water flows will depend on what’s happening further to the east. The Red is where much of this year’s attention is turned, as the province is anticipating “a significant inflow of water” from the northern United States. If the conditions are favourable, no major flooding is expected. Normal weather would result in flooding similar to 2011, which granted, was not as bad on the Red as it was on the Assiniboine.
Despite some cautious optimism about our flood outlook, it can change quickly. We have a few winter storms yet to come and let’s not forget that it was in May of 2011 that the Corral Centre in Brandon was sandbagged, as spring storms swelled the banks of the Assiniboine.
Almost a decade later, we still don’t have an outlet for Lake Manitoba, though the project keeps inching along. In June 2018, $540 million in federal and provincial government funding was announced for the long-awaited outlet from Lake Manitoba, into Lake St. Martin, into Lake Winnipeg. Last month, the provincial government issued a press release about the project, saying, “The construction of the Lake Manitoba / Lake St. Martin Outlet Channels is one of our government’s top priorities.” The press release outlined the consultation the government has undertaken with Indigenous communities in the area. As the project moves through consultation and review, residents around the lake are just hoping for a favourable spring.