Winnipeg, Headingley may 'share the pain' of Assiniboine River floods with Lake Manitoba

Proposed changes to the way the province operates the Portage Diversion would send more Assiniboine River water downstream to ensure municipalities such as Headingley and Winnipeg "share the pain" of flooding with property owners along Lake Manitoba.

Changes proposed to Portage Diversion operating guidelines create political conundrum

Proposed changes to the way the province operates the Portage Diversion would send more Assiniboine River water downstream to ensure municipalities such as Headingley and Winnipeg "share the pain" of flooding with property owners along Lake Manitoba. 2:06

Proposed changes to the way the province operates the Portage Diversion would send more Assiniboine River water downstream to ensure municipalities such as Headingley and Winnipeg "share the pain" of flooding with property owners along Lake Manitoba.

A review of Manitoba flood-control infrastructure operating guidelines, completed in 2015 but made public this summer, calls for a better balance between the needs of people living along Lake Manitoba — the shallow body of water prone to artificial flooding from the Portage Diversion — and people living along the lower portions of the Assiniboine River.

During the Assiniboine River flood of 2011, artificial flooding inundated ranchland and hayfields along Lake Manitoba and also allowed storms to destroy homes and cottages. Property owners along the lake claimed their interests were overlooked to protect those of vegetable farms and homes along the lower Assiniboine, including residences in Winnipeg.

The proposed change to the diversion's operating guidelines includes a call for more water to be sent downstream in the event of both a major flood on Lake Manitoba, and an expected seasonal flow of more than 295,000 Olympic swimming pools worth of floodwater through the diversion.

"This proposed change will undoubtedly aggravate flooding on the lower Assiniboine River, particularly through the backup of the drains that flow into the river," states the review, which was co-authored by consultant Harold Westdal, former City of Winnipeg water and waste director Barry MacBride and hydrologist Rick Bowering.

Flooded fields from the Portage Diversion breach Lake Manitoba in background. (Iris Yuill)

"However, the proposed operating guideline recognizes that, under unregulated conditions, all the flow would continue down the Assiniboine River resulting in widespread flooding. This operating guideline change is an attempt to share the pain."

The Pallister government has yet to say whether it the recommendations. Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Blaine Pedersen said the province is still studying the review.

The Midland MLA also said Lake Manitoba flooding will be mitigated by the construction of a permanent channel that would drain both Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin, which also experienced severe flooding in 2011.

Ottawa and Manitoba have pledged to spend $495 million to complete this channel, which would replace the $100-million emergency channel constructed in 2011.

Pedersen said work is proceeding on the permanent channel, which was promised by the Selinger and Harper governments in 2015 and will be completed by the Trudeau and Pallister governments.

"Our government is committed to building that channel and we're working toward it," said Pedersen, adding engineering work has already started.

The proposed changes to the Portage Diversion operating guidelines pose a unique conundrum to the rural municipality of Portage la Prairie, which encompasses properties along Lake Manitoba and along the lower Assiniboine River.

"I do understand and appreciate that this is a very difficult situation for anyone to be in, because you're essentially damned if you do and damned if you don't, no pun intended. But I also think that's extreme circumstances and I also don't know what inflows are going to cause that to take place," Portage la Prairie reeve Kam Blight said.

"There's a lot of questions that are still out that we need answers to, and I don't know if the province has those answers at this time. But it's certainly something we're looking forward to discussing with them in the near future"

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.