Anger boils over at lake channel meeting

People whose lives have been turned upside down by flooding on Lake Manitoba voiced their frustration at a public meeting on Friday, hurling vitriol at Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton.
Work has already begun on an eight-kilometre long emergency channel to lower levels on Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin. (Province of Manitoba)
A crowd of about 100 people attended a meeting in Eriksdale about the emergency channel being created to lower the levels of Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin. (Bahador Zabihiyan/CBC)

People whose lives have been turned upside down by flooding on Lake Manitoba voiced their frustration at a public meeting on Friday, hurling vitriol at Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton.

Ashton met with about 100 ranchers and residents at an open house in Eriksdale to explain a plan to lower the levels of the swollen lake.

He was only able to speak for about five minutes before members of the audience erupted with questions and concerns.

Plan won't save reserve: minister

The emergency channel won't save the chronically-flooded Lake St. Martin First Nation, said Manitoba's Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson.

The reserve has been plagued by flooding for decades and dropping the level of the two swollen lakes by almost a metre isn't enough, he said, adding the community is a writeoff and he wouldn't want to see anybody going back to it.

About 600 residents from the reserve were forced from their homes in May and haven't been able to return.

Talks are underway to move the residents out of hotels in Winnipeg to a temporary settlement closer to the reserve.

The goal is a permanent move to higher ground.

Robinson said the emergency channel is long overdue but it's just too late for the First Nation.

"We feel that a lot of this has been caused by the Portage Diversion without there being adequate drainage to the lake in the first place. That's where the frustration really lies," said Carolyn McFerran, a cottager from the Lundar Beach area, right near the lake's shore.

Through much of the spring, Lake Manitoba was being fed by floodwaters from the bloated Assiniboine River that was channeled north via the Portage Diversion, a 29-kilometre channel that has its inlet near Portage la Prairie.

"We're retirees out here, for the most part, trying our hardest to fight back Lake Manitoba," said McFerran. 

The province announced on Monday that it would spend roughly $100 million on an emergency channel to lower water levels on that lake and Lake St. Martin.

It aims to have construction of the drain channel — eight kilometres long and 100 metres wide by about eight metres deep — complete by the fall of 2011, to reduce the risk of more flooding next spring.

Communities situated near the two lakes have suffered due to record high water levels. In the case of Lake Manitoba, it reached levels unseen in more than 50 years. Nearly 2,000 people have been forced from their homes and cottages and an estimated 700 properties destroyed.

Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton addresses the crowd in Eriksdale. (Bahador Zabihiyan/CBC)

Preliminary work has begun on the channel, which will take water from Lake St. Martin to Big Buffalo Lake, where it will flow naturally into the Dauphin River and eventually into Lake Winnipeg.

The channel will handle outflows of up to 9,000 cubic feet per second to help ease pressure on the two lakes.

The province said that the flood risk will not increase on Lake Winnipeg as a result of the redirected flow.

About 150 people and 50 pieces of earth moving equipment will work on the project, excavating about 25 million cubic metres of earth to complete the channel.

Eriksdale is located about 25 kilometres from the eastern shore of the lake, or about 125 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.