Manitoba ramps up flood fight

Residents of Manitoba's Red River Valley are about to get an answer to a $1-billion question: Can you flood-proof a floodplain, or at least all the people and buildings on it?
The bridge into the town of Morris was impassable due to flood waters in April 2009. (John Redekop/CBC)

Residents of Manitoba's Red River Valley are about to get an answer to a $1-billion question: Can you flood-proof a floodplain, or at least all the people and buildings on it?

The flat, low-lying valley experiences some flooding almost every year, but this spring is shaping up to be among the worst. Heavy snowfall and saturated soil have experts predicting deep water in the coming weeks.

That forecast has prompted around-the-clock sandbagging, ice-breaking and other measures up and down the valley.

In Winnipeg, crews on assembly lines are working day and night as they try to put together three million sandbags in time for the meltwater.

The sand comes on conveyor belts and through chutes. As one worker finishes filling one bag, he passes it to his colleague, who ties the bag and throws it onto a front-end loader.

The sandbags are taken to an adjacent warehouse and stacked four metres high. Heaters prevent the bags from freezing at night.

The bag needs to be malleable in order to form a tight seal for a dike.

North of the city, three amphibious ice-breakers have been chopping up the frozen river, slowly making their way south. The machines are used to prevent ice jams and keep the river flowing north into Lake Winnipeg instead of spilling its banks and swamping the surrounding land.

Evacuation concerns

South of Winnipeg, towns such as Morris and St. Jean Baptiste are preparing to extend their earthen dikes across roadways to keep rising water out.

Residents have become used to having only one road to the outside world kept open in wet years. But there is a possibility this year that some towns may have to close all their roads, which would force evacuations. 

Farmers also have become accustomed to the deluge. Many use motorboats in the wettest springs to get around their property or to go to the nearest town for supplies.

Protecting the 200-kilometre-long valley has become a growth industry of sorts. Since the so-called flood of the century in 1997, which swamped homes and forced thousands to flee, governments at all levels have spent close to $1 billion on flood-fighting measures.

Why 'James Avenue?'

James Avenue datum is a scale used to measure elevations in the city of Winnipeg.

On the scale, "zero" is defined as the level for normal winter ice where James Avenue meets the Red River in downtown Winnipeg. That point is about 221 metres (727 feet) above sea level.

The normal summer water level at James Avenue is usually kept at about seven feet (2.1 metres) above that point, which city officials often describe as "seven feet James."

Since the Red River Floodway was built, most floods in the city involved river levels just below 20 feet James. In 1997, water levels reached 24.5 feet James - about five metres higher than normal summer levels.

They have purchased ice-breakers, expanded dikes, bought out dozens of flood-prone properties and raised roads, bridges and buildings.

They're about to see whether it will pay off.

"Every time we have a flood event, we have lessons that are learned," said Randy Hull, Winnipeg's emergency preparedness co-ordinator. "The events of 1997, 2005, 2006 and 2009, every event adds to that experience, so we capitalize on all those experiences to do better planning."

Much of the money has been spent on expanding the granddaddy of all flood-fighting tools —  the Red River Floodway, a 47-kilometre-long canal that diverts rising river water around Winnipeg and dumps it back into the Red farther north.

Built following a 1950 flood that swamped the city, the floodway has recently been widened to handle 4,000 cubic metres of water per second. It is the envy of upstream cities such as Grand Forks and Fargo, N.D.

The floodway means most Winnipeggers escape any impact of the rising river, but there are several dozen low-lying waterfront homes that require sandbags and temporary dikes in very wet years. As well, parts of the city's sewer system are at risk of backing up.

For now, officials are waiting to see how high the Red will rise in the coming weeks. Much depends on how quickly the snow dissolves and how much rain and snow fall while the melt is underway.

"We've got more tools in our tool box to deal with flood-fighting," said Steve Topping, the man who oversees flood preparations as executive director of Manitoba Water Stewardship.

"We're preparing for this at many fronts and … I'm very confident we'll come out of this in very good shape.

Historic Winnipeg flood levels

 Year Peak Red River level (above normal James level) Est. peak level without floodway**
 2009 6.89 metres 9.9 metres
 1997 7.47 m 10. 5 m
 1979 5.85 m 9.24 m
 1966 7.99 m 
 1950 9.24 m 
 1852 10.5 m 
 1826 11.13 m 
  SOURCE: City of Winnipeg 

** Floodway first operational in 1969