Manitoba flooding: Next 48 hours critical, province says

Manitoba Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton calls the next 48 hours the most critical in the flood fight, as a significant crest of the Assiniboine River is expected to reach the Portage la Prairie area Wednesday and Winnipeg a day later.

RM of St. Francois Xavier gears up for river crest

9 years ago
Duration 2:08
Military and volunteer crews scramble to protect homes along the Assiniboine River before it crests sometime in the coming days.

Manitoba Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton says the next 48 hours will be the most critical in the flood fight, as the province braces for a significant crest in the Assiniboine River that's expected to reach Winnipeg within days.

Dikes along the Assiniboine and the Portage Diversion will be pushed to the limit but a "dramatic mobilization" has helped prepare the province as much as possible for the crest of floodwater bearing down from the west, Ashton said.

"Tomorrow we hit the crest. We aim to be as fully prepared as possible, but I want to stress we will not be taking anything for granted," he told reporters on Tuesday.

Ashton said the province will continue to be on high alert as the floodwater moves through. Officials are waiting to see whether it will be necessary to cut through a road dike at the Hoop and Holler Bend in the Assiniboine to let the pressure off of the swollen river.

Crews are doing their best to try and control where the water is going without making that controlled breach, Ashton said, adding that he understands there are people who will be impacted if the dike is cut.

"We know it has impacts. We know it's very stressful for people," he said. "We're trying our best to make sure we protect as many Manitobans as possible. That's the key goal."

High river flows pose a serious risk of uncontrolled breaches in other dikes along the river, which would be devastating to many more properties, Ashton said.

And if there was an uncontrolled breach along the Assiniboine, people living near Hoop and Holler would also be impacted, he said.

A significant crest of the Assiniboine is expected to reach the Portage Diversion at about noon Wednesday, St. Francois Xavier 24 hours later, and the edge of Winnipeg just after that.

Ashton said the province cannot let nature take its course, as uncontrolled breaches anywhere along the river would be catastrophic.

"There are hundreds of homes that we are working to protect," he said. "That's our goal, is to control the flows wherever possible. Key time is the next 48 hours."

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair will travel to Winnipeg on Wednesday to visit a military flood relief post.

Plea for sandbag help

People in St. Francois Xavier are shoring up dikes and pleading for volunteers as the flood crest nears. If you can help with sandbagging efforts, call the municipality at 204-864-2874.

The community of about 1,200 was hit Monday with news that their flood dikes are not high enough.

Firefighters went door to door Monday, telling residents in that area and the rural municipality of Cartier they need to raise their dikes another 60 centimetres while others, who thought they were safe, are being told they need to build them. 

Officials are preparing people for a flood crest of a third of a metre higher than 2011 levels, but say they want people to build dikes to a level one metre higher to leave room for possible wave impact.

Robert Poirie, chief administrative officer for St. Francois Xavier, said there are still about 50 houses at risk.

It'll be a competitive race [but we're] pretty confident we'll get it done- Robert Poirie, CAO for St. Francois Xavier

"It'll be a competitive race [but we're] pretty confident we'll get it done. By the end of daylight today, I expect we'll be completed and have everyone protected but we are absolutely in need of more volunteers."

Poirier said it's hard to believe a repeat of the 2011 flood is coming.

“Around about Canada Day, I was looking at the weather forecast thinking, 'This can't be good.' But I really didn’t expect it to be this bad,” he said.

A provincial dike covers nearly half the rural municipality and is in good shape to hold up against the expected flows, Poirier said.

"Beyond that, individual home owners are encouraged to take steps to protect their property to the 1976 level — 1976 being the worst flood on record out here and whose levels we expect to reach this year."

Farmers losing everything, resident says

Keven Van Camp, who has lived in the area for 17 years, has been through three major floods, including 2011.

He is thankful for the military and volunteers trying to save his home, but angry that the province has not constructed permanent protection. He said his neighbours, who are farmers, are losing everything.

"For us, this is a great aggravation but for people like [them], it's their life. It can flood here every year and our pension cheques keep coming, but not so for [them]."

Van Camp said the province needs to build permanent diking all the way from Baie St. Paul to Headingley to protect the communities and food producers along the way.

"It's not easy, it's not going to be cheap," he said. "But for all Manitobans and other Canadians, do you want to pay for compensation and higher food costs or do you want to pay to fix it?"

Portage Diversion running full

Even before the crest of the Assiniboine River has passed through, the Portage Diversion is running at near capacity.

The a 29-kilometre channel, which directs some of the flood water from the Assiniboine north to Lake Manitoba.

Farmers along the diversion say their land is already under water because the channel is spilling overflow out of a number of cuts, called fail safes, carved into the side.

"We've been flooded because of that fail safe several times," said Iris Yuill, who had planted canola and corn just west of the channel.

"There's work that needs to be done — the diversion hasn't had any dredging to speak of, cleaning out, since it was built in the 60s."

She worries what will happen when the crest hits the diversion.

Phillip Lander's farmland in the Rural Municipality of Portage is also under water, and he said there's nothing he can do but watch his property flood.

"I'm still arguing over 2011 and then we're going to go through it all again," he said.

"This year is worse because the crop is already in. I spent the money on herbicide, fertilizer, seeds, all those kinds of things, and now I've got nothing, just fish."

Lander estimates that he's already out $100,000 this year.

When the crest hits, the peak volume of water passing under bridges crossing the diversion will be equal to an Olympic-sized swimming poll every 2.5 seconds, officials said.

Wetland drainage creates 'perfect storm,' says expert

Hundreds of people have been forced from their homes since torrential rainstorms soaked Saskatchewan and Manitoba in late June, creating unprecedented overland flooding.

Part of the problem is that farmers have been draining wetlands to turn them into productive land, says John Pomeroy, the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan.

"It's kind of a perfect storm. It's changing climate and wetland drainage," he said. "One is a little bit driving the other."

The Manitoba government recently said it will introduce some of the toughest wetland protection measures in Canada.

Pomeroy said while the province's move is going in the right direction, governments also need to compensate farmers for not cultivating those wetlands, which he said would benefit everyone downstream.

"We've got to figure out some combination of long-term solutions and get it done," said Van Camp.