Flooded prairie rivers set for steep rise

Residents of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta were bracing for rivers to rise even further as seasonal flooding approaches some of its worst levels in 160 years.
David Stickel, an employee of Saamis Funeral Home in Medicine Hat, Alta., sandbags the perimeter of the business earlier this week. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Winnipeg was bracing for both its big waterways to rise dramatically Saturday after an ice jam on the Assiniboine River broke up last week, part of the devastating effects of flooding affecting the Prairies.

The ice jam near Holland, Man., broke up Thursday, and officials expect water levels will rise by about 45 centimetres on the Assiniboine and Red rivers as a result.

The Assiniboine is already 5.8 metres above its normal winter ice level in downtown Winnipeg, though it shouldn't be a problem for residents and businesses because the city's riverfront properties are protected up to 6.6 metres.   

Why is it flooding?

CBC's Johanna Wagstaffe

CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe  gives insight into the cause of flooding across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba:

"There are a few elements leading to the already busy season and the high peak forecast. Snowmelt is a big one: Parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan were above average for precipitation by almost double between November and early March. But in southern Manitoba, they were actually below seasonal [precipitation levels] from November to March. That would probably affect ice jams more, hence the increase in ice jam flooding in that area. Temperatures are the other factor. A cold winter has increased run-off with a frozen ground, and the warm spell that the Prairies have experienced over the weekend and early this week caused a lot of fast snowmelt. So the immediate consequence of the combination of precipitation and cold is overland flooding due to frozen ground and ditches in combination with fast snowmelt. The warm temperatures have also been quickly breaking up ice and causing serious ice jams. The concern over the next couple of weeks will be the actual crest of the rivers, and whether or not the ring dikes and sandbags can hold."

Officials warn, however, that the crest of the flood is still weeks away, with the harrowing possibility that both the Red and Assiniboine are on track to crest at the same time.

Experts think the Red River could reach up to 6.95 metres, its second-highest level in 160 years, surpassed only by the devastating 1997 floods. At that height, Winnipeg will have to install more dikes to protect buildings abutting the river.

Elsewhere in the province, spring flooding has forced nearly 700 people from their homes, mostly on the Peguis First Nation about 150 kilometres north of the capital.

Soil levels are highly saturated, and heavy snowpack is adding to the flood and contributing to ice jams in some places.

Gerald Cochrane, a Peguis resident who has stayed marooned in his water-lapped house, gets deliveries of food and supplies from co-workers.

"They did that for me because I couldn't get out," he said.

It's the sixth time in three years Peguis has experienced disaster-grade floods, which has many residents mad that the provincial and federal governments haven't ponyed up money for a more permanent solution.

Peguis Chief Hudson estimates it would cost between $30 million and $190 million for a waterway diversion and permanent dikes. Houses could also be moved or elevated.  

"Sitting down and working out solutions to the long-term flood protection will happen, and that's something that I'll hold the premier [to] and certainly the federal government," Hudson said.

The federal Indian Affairs Department says it has set aside $750,000 for dikes, and to relocate and elevate 75 at-risk homes. It has also spent $3 million on sandbags and labour costs, while the province announced an additional $1.5 million for Peguis on Friday.


Officials in the town of Lumsden, about 35 kilometres northwest of Regina, have declared a local state of emergency as rivers keep rising.

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The town's dikes are prepared for the severity of flooding seen once every 500 years, but there is a weak spot: one end of a bridge on a main street in the town dips to a level where it's susceptible to rising water. If the water rises 20 centimetres more, the whole street will be closed.

Further east in the Qu'Appelle Valley, the Muscowpetung First Nation has already moved a number of residents, mostly elderly, off the reserve because of flooding, and it was expected there would be a need to evacuate more homes over the weekend.

"People on the reserve have never seen this before," Stanley Poitras, a band councillor, told CBC News. "My dad is 83 years old. He's lived on a farm here for 50 years and he's never seen any run-off like this before. It's new to everybody."

The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations is also demanding more help. Rising flood waters in the Qu'Appelle Valley are threatening 12 other First Nations communities, besides Muscowpetung. The province has teams on the ground, but federation Chief Guy Lonechild wants the federal government to pitch in.

"The federal government has said it can't do anything because of the election," Lonechild told CBC News on Friday. "They ... are really transferring some of these issues on the reserve to the provincial government."


Water levels in southeastern Alberta's Cypress Hills region risk rising even further as temperatures rise over the next few days, CBC meteorologist Michelle Leslie said.

"We are looking at a warmup, so this is going to be a story especially as we hit Wednesday, Thursday."