Flood prep underway in Winnipeg, Brandon

Manitoba's two largest cities are bracing for spring floods.

Manitoba's two largest cities are bracing for spring floods.

In Winnipeg, officials are counting sandbags and making sure equipment is ready, while in Brandon, officials are measuring the risk from the Assiniboine River and overland flooding due to heavy snowpack.

The Manitoba government will unveil its flood forecast on Monday, but has already warned the potential for flooding is very high.

A very wet summer and fall in 2010 has left the ground saturated, which means there is not many places for melting snow to go, Manitoba Water Stewardship spokesman Steve Topping said on Tuesday.

The soil is more saturated now than in the days leading up to the so-called Flood of the Century in 1997 and the 2009 flood.

The Winnipeg area received 55.6 centimetres of snow in November — the highest snowfall amount for the city in that month since 1996 (leading into the devastating spring of 1997).

Typically, by the end of January, Winnipeggers have had about 69 centimetres of snow dumped on them, according to Environment Canada. This year, there has been closer to 95 cm.

The snow, combined with a rainy spring and summer, has put 2010 into the record book as Winnipeg's second-wettest ever. It was just 0.6 of a millimetre shy of the highest amount, since records began in 1873.

Flood Fact

Flooding in Manitoba in 2009 submerged about 1,800 square kilometres of land and forced about 2,500 people to register as evacuees with the Red Cross or Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters.

In 1997, the coverage was 2,000 square kilometres — an area equivalent to the size of Prince Edward Island.

The record amount, set in 1962, is 723.6 millimetres.

Randy Hull, Winnipeg's emergency preparedness co-ordinator, said the city is already pulling ice steamers out of storage, checking the inventory of sandbags, and running computer models to see where the water will go.

"We'd be foolish to not admit there will be some kind of flood event on the river this spring," he said, noting the Red River "is actually six feet higher than it should be in the middle of winter.

"It's good that we have experience. I think we go into it with some caution [but also] optimistic that we'll meet the challenge," Hull added. "I don't think there's any fear. I think it's more about what is it that's going to come and just be prepared for it."

The severity of the spring flooding will depend on how much precipitation is yet come, when the melt will happen, and what kind of water levels will come up the Red River from the United States.

An advisory issued by the U.S. National Weather Service Tuesday warned of a 20 per cent chance the Red River will surpass a record crest set in 2009. There's also about a 50 per cent chance it will beat last year's crest, which was the sixth highest on record, the weather service said.

Sump pump help

Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz told reporters on Wednesday that the city and province are working to mitigate some of the consequences of spring flooding.

Katz hinted at a program that could subsidize the cost of purchasing sump pumps and sewer back-up valves for city homeowners. He didn't provide many details because the plan is still in the works, he said.

However, Katz said the subsidy could be in the neighbourhood of 50 to 60 per cent.

Meanwhile in Brandon, Mayor Shari Decter-Hirst said the Assiniboine River corridor, which houses a number of commercial and residential areas, has been identified as being at risk.

And housing developments at the south end of the city are in an area prone to overland flooding.

"We have been told to expect extreme flooding conditions and so our planning has just ratcheted up," she said.

She's working with business and residents to get the jump on flood preparations, but wants all residents to be ready.

"You know, if they have wet basements, deal with it now and not in April," she said. "If they know they are prone to flooding on their property, [think about] what can they be doing now, and as we go forward to that spring thaw, to again mitigate some of those issues."

Despite the forecast from the U.S. National Weather Service, officials caution Manitobans not to jump to conclusions.

Manitoba faces a "very high" flood potential, but "a major flood in Fargo does not necessarily translate into a large flood in Manitoba," Topping said.

Improved defences

Manitoba has increased its flood-fighting measures in recent years, to the point where most homes and businesses are virtually flood-proof. Most years, floods cover farmland and roads but people remain dry.

Towns hard hit in the past, such as St. Jean Baptiste and Morris, have improved their earthen dikes.

Areas south of Winnipeg are perhaps the safest. After the so-called flood of the century in 1997, homes and businesses were raised or moved so they won't flood unless the water is 60 centimetres higher than 1997 levels.

And the Red River Floodway, a 47-kilometre-long ditch that diverts water around Winnipeg, has been expanded to protect the city from the flooding that experts say happens in the area once every 700 years.

The big question mark every year is ice jams.

In 2009, ice jams north of Winnipeg sent huge chunks into homes and caused flash flooding in some riverfront areas.

Since then, residents of the most flood-prone areas north of Winnipeg have been bought out and relocated.

With files from The Canadian Press