High water levels on Lake Winnipeg play havoc with businesses, tourism

The high water levels on Lake Winnipeg have created tough times for businesses and tourism in beach communities, forcing at least one business to close off-and-on for nearly a month of the short summer.

'We're doing what we can' to lower the lake level, Manitoba Hydro says

Beachgoers launch their inflatable seahorse from the flooded Patricia Beach parking lot. (Sandy Roman/Facebook)

Sandy Roman calls her work "the best job in the whole world," but lately, she's been facing a world of frustration.

Roman owns Sandy's Chipstand, a snack shack in Patricia Beach Provincial Park, along the east side of Lake Winnipeg, which is seeing its worst flooding since Manitoba Hydro started regulating levels in 1976.

"It's a little difficult. It's a little difficult for sure. You just don't know when you wake up in the morning, am I going to work today? Are people are going to get fries?" she told CBC Information Radio host Marcy Markusa on Friday.

Flooding has forced her to close the business intermittently throughout the summer, for a total of 23 days in a season that's only 3½ months long.

She's operated the stand, on the shoreline just beyond the parking lot for the beach, for 14 years, and though she saw high water about a decade ago — forcing her to close for 14 days — this year's inundation is new.

Sandy's Chipstand backs onto the shore at Patricia Beach Provincial Park. (Sandy Roman/Facebook)

That has led to another challenge.

"I have to get a job, like, this winter. I have to get a job to be able to support the chip stand because I've got leases, I've got machines that I'm paying for, and this year, there's just not enough money to be able to support it throughout the wintertime," Roman said.

"This is a first. So I'm going to be putting out resumés, I guess."

The lake is swollen due to an extremely snowy winter that led to heavy spring runoff into the six rivers that feed the lake, exacerbated by unusually high precipitation. The Winnipeg River saw its largest flood on record and the Red River crested at its sixth-highest volume since record keeping began.

Some beaches are, at times, a sliver of sand a metre wide rather than 30 metres or more.

The once-wide sandy beach has been almost nonexistent at Albert Beach on Lake Winnipeg some days this summer. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Whenever the lake is beyond 715 feet above sea level, Manitoba Hydro is required to drain as much water as possible into the Nelson River at the Jenpeg Generating Station north of the lake. The recommended operating range for the lake is between 711 and 715 feet.

The water level peaked a few weeks ago at 717.5 feet and has only receded slightly since then, measuring 717.35 on Friday morning. 

"The lake is so high that as soon as there's a north wind of any kind, it fills up our lagoons that we have, and then it fills up my parking lot and the road and nobody can get in," Roman said.

"People are still coming out, which is wonderful because they really love Patricia Beach, but the beaches are small [and] around the bathrooms it's all muddy, because the grass is gone from being so waterlogged."

Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Scott Powell, whose own cottage property has been impacted by the water, said the corporation can't do anything more to lower the levels. 

"We reached our maximum discharge out of the Jenpeg control structure in late May," he said, adding it has been releasing 170,000 cubic feet of water per second since then.

In comparison, last year the peak discharge was 31,000 cubic feet per second.

"We sympathize with all the property owners and cottagers, resource users and all those business owners around Lake Winnipeg. This has been an absolutely incredible year," he said. "We're doing what we can to help ameliorate that lake level."

Hydro can't increase the discharge because it's just not physically possible, he said.

"There's only so much water you can pass through the generating station and the spillway."

The Patricia Beach parking lot has been under water a lot this summer. (Sandy Roman/Facebook)

Predicting when people might get some relief "is a bit of a crystal ball" prediction, Powell said. However, with normal precipitation in the forecast and the outflow remaining as is, the lake level could reach 716 feet in about two weeks.

While people are still showing up at Patricia Beach, the numbers are only a fraction of what they are in a typical summer, Roman said.

"I would say we're a quarter to a third of what we normally would get in," said Roman, with two of the three parking lots closed the entire season due to flooding.

She hopes the province will take steps to help alleviate some of the problems, such as bringing in porta-potties temporarily to make bathrooms more accessible. 

Flooding has left Sandy's Chipstand almost inaccessible a number of times this summer. (Sandy Roman/Facebook)

But she really just wants to see things normal again.

"I'm hoping it's over next year. It has to be better. It has to be better," she said.

Her work usually brings her such joy because "everybody's always so happy to come here," she said.

"It's the best job in the whole world, because you just see all their smiling faces because they're at the beach. Life is good when you're at the beach."


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Shanhah-Lee Vidal and Bartley Kives


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