The province of Manitoba is going ahead with a plan to divert water from a swollen river that will ease flooding concerns for some and bring unwanted water to others, the premier announced.

In a provincewide broadcast, Greg Selinger described the spring floods that have hit his province as "the most severe flooding we have ever seen."

"This is a natural disaster, without precedent," he added. "It is affecting the lives of many Manitobans."

"At 6 a.m. [CT] tomorrow morning, we will take another extraordinary step," Selinger said in reference to the diversion plan on the Assiniboine River which will unfold west of Winnipeg at a location called the Hoop and Holler Bend.

Selinger said officials were unanimous in recommending the province conduct what they say will be "a controlled opening in the dike."

Earlier on Friday, officials explained how the dike would be breached.

"The plan is to undertake a controlled release of the Assiniboine River tomorrow morning," Steve Topping, executive director of Water Stewardship in Manitoba, said during an afternoon media briefing.

Initially, the cut will divert water flow of about 500 cubic feet per second from the Assiniboine.

"Our intention is to keep this to a slow, controlled flow," he added. The flow would be increased to 1,000 cfs during the course of Saturday, he said, and, within a few days, gradually increase to between 2,500 and 3,000 cfs.

Topping explained that the water will "disperse in a diffuse manner across fields, and then fill behind roads, and spill at low points along roads" before eventually connecting to waterways that will take the water to the Lasalle River.

Some officials said the movement of water will appear more as a "trickle" than a rush. The government said news of the actual cut will be relayed via Twitter, as soon as it happens.

The community of Elie, Man., can expect water about seven to eight days after the release is started.

"This was not an easy decision," Selinger said. "We have worked to delay the timing of the release for as long as we safely could to allow more homes to be protected."

"If we stood back and allowed nature to run its course, we would face an almost certain uncontrolled break of the dike," he added.

Selinger also praised the work of community volunteers, property owners, the military and emergency officials in the last number of days.

Cut necessary

Topping said the move to release water by cutting through a dike with heavy machinery was necessary, even though other measures to mitigate the risk of flood were working.

Officials had pressed a water control structure, the Portage Diversion, into overdrive to direct flows to Lake Manitoba.

"We've had a lot of help from the phenomenal work undertaken at the Portage Diversion so it can handle more than its capacity, potentially 34,000 cfs [cubic feet per second] which is a remarkable accomplishment," Topping said. "Today the Portage Diversion is carrying more water than the Red River Floodway."

"There is an enormous amount of flood-fighting activity across the province," Topping said.

Dozens of Manitoba communities have been scrambling to build or reinforce dikes ever since the province learned more water than initially expected was on its way from Saskatchewan.

The battle against rising water is also being waged on several lakes, but Topping said the forecast is grim because wind action on lake water could overwhelm sandbag dikes.

"We have not had a lot of help from the weather," Topping said. "Today strong north winds are going to present challenges along Lake Manitoba, Lake St. Martin, Shoal Lake, and Dauphin Lake."

The rush of water on the Assiniboine and the province's plans to mitigate flood damage have put dozens of communities in southwest Manitoba on alert.

Special compensation

"I'm here tonight to tell you that you and your family will not face this alone," Selinger said, addressing the people who are in the path of the water to be released. "We are all in this together."

Selinger promised to create a "special compensation program" that would go beyond existing disaster assistance.

"Families and producers affected by the controlled release will receive compensation to cover damages, income losses and the cost of recovering the land after the floodwaters recede," he said.

"This is a flood unlike any we have seen before and the fight is long from over. But we'll work day in and day out to stay ahead of the flood and do everything we can to support Manitoba families," he said. "Together, we'll get through this."

Cattle producers worried

The flood crisis has expanded into areas around Lake Manitoba as increasing amounts of water from the raging Assiniboine River are sent there by the Portage Diversion.

Hundreds of cattle producers say they are being flooded out, at least 200 homes and cottages in Delta Beach are close to being flooded by the rise in the lake levels, and several First Nations communities have been sandbagged and diked to protect against water they say has never been so high.

"It's very, very depressing. Like, it's very wet. The biggest thing is the uncertainty of what the government is going to do to help," said Steven Cook, who farms in the Steep Rock area near the northeast end of the lake.

He estimates tens of thousands of acres of pasture and hayland are under water.

"I mean, it's complete livelihoods that are going down the drain — a lifetime of work," Cook said.

"We're pounding the water down here to save southern Manitoba. And everybody here understands that, but in my opinion, the government should have come forward and told everybody what they're going to do for them before they unloaded on them."

Cook said a provincial bureaucrat blindsided producers at a meeting on Monday with news that 10,000 cattle would have to be moved, some as far away as Saskatchewan and Alberta.

And there's still no word on how much producers will be compensated for this man-made flood, he said.


Water rushes through the gates of the Portage Diversion on May 10. (Government of Manitoba)

Built during a five-year span from 1965-70, the Portage Diversion provides flood protection for the City of Winnipeg and areas along the Assiniboine River.

It is designed to handle floodwater flows of up to 25,000 cubic feet per second, but this year, after building up the sides, the province is squeezing 34,000 cubic feet per second through and sending it all to Lake Manitoba.

As a result, the lake level has risen two to three feet (0.6 to 0.9 metres) above normal.

Pinaymootang, Little Saskatchewan, Lake St. Martin and O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nations are all near Lake Manitoba, and people are pumping water from fields and crawl spaces.

Meanwhile, people on the south shore of Lake Manitoba say they also feel forgotten about and sacrificed in this flood.

"This water would all go to Winnipeg and into Lake Winnipeg if it wasn't coming here. And you know, this is as much a man-made flood as the cut in the [dike] of the Assinboine River will be," said Don Clarkson, who is a full-time resident in Delta Beach and part of the cottage owners' association.

The water is already about 1½ inches below the community's bridge, which is the only access point for half of the properties.

Requests by Delta Beach residents to the province for flood information have fallen on deaf ears, said Clarkson.

"You know, we're not engineers. We don't really know exactly what we're supposed to be doing and it seems that the focus with emergency measures … is all in the area where the cut zone is," he said.

Dike breach set for Saturday

The cut zone is 35 kilometres south of Delta Beach at the Hoop and Holler Bend, near Portage la Prairie.

It was first set for Wednesday, and then postponed to Thursday morning, and then further delayed to Thursday afternoon before being put off again until Saturday.

The breach would threaten about 150 homes in a 225-square-kilometre area, according to the province. It will then flow into the La Salle River basin, putting properties there at risk as well.

The release is necessary because many dikes holding back the river are stressed and should they fail, there could be uncontrolled flooding over a wider 500-square-kilometre area.

Officials, including Premier Greg Selinger and Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton, have said that this is one of the hardest decisions they've ever had to make, but they have no choice because there is really nowhere else for the water to go.

Trickle not tsunami

Breach explained

A controlled release along the Assiniboine River dike between Portage la Prairie and Headingley is needed to reduce the substantial risk of an uncontrolled breach along the dikes.

The release location is an oxbow on the river east of Portage known as the Hoop and Holler Bend.

  • The release will be a spill of water over a notch in the dike that has been reinforced with rock. The notch is 65 metres wide and about 2.5 m deep.
  • The spill will happen when rock is removed from the notch in a controlled manner to allow only a certain flow level to be released.
  • Water will spill over the notch and move slowly across the landscape causing overland flooding.
  • Crews would continually monitor the release and heavy equipment would be stationed south and east of the controlled release site to help control the flow of water.
  • After a few hours, the flow would be approximately 500 cfs. Based on the current forecast, the controlled release flows could gradually increase to between 2,500 and 3,000 cfs over the following days.
  • Once the release is finished, rock would be replaced and reinforced to stem the flow of water.

Although the Portage Diversion is handling a higher flow it's still not enough for the expected peak coming next week. That's when the Assiniboine is predicted to hit flows of 56,000 cfs.

Postponing the intentional breach has allowed armies of volunteers, including residents, students and members of the Canadian Forces, to sandbag homes in the spill floodzone.

Time a precious commodity

Time is a precious commodity but at one point on Thursday, it was wasted when sandbag supplies ran out.

More have since been made and the City of Winnipeg announced it will pull 700 of its street cleaning crews off the job to make sandbags instead.

Anxiety levels are rising among the 150 affected homeowners as the "go time" for the breach keeps changing.

The best news for them would be for the breach to be called off altogether, but many of those residents are beginning to accept the reality that their homes must be flooded to save many more.

Carol Rempel, who lives in Oakville, one of the communities in the line of the coming spill, wanted to cry when she first heard the government's plan.

Now she is resigned to the result, whatever that might be.

"If they say yes, we're cutting it, OK, I can [now] be prepared but for what?" she said.

But there are still some who remain angry with the situation. Bob Lund, who also lives in Oakville, is frustrated with the lack of information from officials and skeptical the province will be able to control the water.

"A controlled breach, who knows? That's what they're going to try to do but realistically, I don't know how controlled it's going to be at the end," he said, noting he has been told to prepare for anywhere from six inches to six feet of water.

He said no one in the community knows how high to build their dikes.

View Larger Map About 200 homes around Delta Beach are at risk.