Portage Diversion pushing flood waters north

The Manitoba government is already crediting the Portage Diversion with preventing serious flooding between Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg this week.

Province defending court injunction it obtained to end farmers' protest

Manitoba government has activated the Portage Diversion, in an effort to prevent severe flooding along the Assiniboine River between Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg. 1:58

The Manitoba government is already crediting the Portage Diversion with preventing serious flooding between Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg this week.

Crews opened the structure, which diverts water from the Assiniboine River towards Lake Manitoba, about 11 p.m. Monday.

On Tuesday, provincial officials said it's a good thing the diversion was opened when it did, or there could have been a surge of water from an ice dam that broke upstream.

The structure has diverted five times the amount of water that was originally expected, according to officials.

The diversion began operating after a group of 50 to 60 protesters agreed to stop blocking the structure late Monday.

The protesters, whose farms and properties were flooded by the diversion in 2011, had moved their farm equipment into the channel at around midday.

The province wanted to activate the diversion right away, citing concerns that a build-up of ice was approaching the structure and could create significant ice jams and flooding.

Farmers dispute province's claim

The farmers claimed they were promised multi-year compensation for damages from the 2011 flood.

Flood bulletin issued

The province issued its latest flood bulletin on Tuesday, saying 10 homes have already had minor flooding in Gladstone due to overland flooding caused by ice jams against a bridge along the Whitemud River.

The local health centre needed some sandbagging on a road access point, but the centre itself wasn't at risk, according to the province.

Overland flooding has also hit two occupied homes and four empty homes in Benito, a village near the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border.

Despite the flooding, no evacuations have been reported in Benito, according to the province.

As well, the rural municipalities of Cornwallis, Cameron and Whitewater have declared states of local emergency due to flood concerns.

The province says a flood warning remains in effect for the Swan River and its tributaries and the Whitemud River.

A high water advisory is in effect for the Pembina River and smaller tributaries and drains in the Dauphin and Swan River areas.

Officials say strong wind warnings are in effect for Lake Winnipeg, Lake Manitoba, Lake Winnipegosis, Lake St. Martin and the Shoal lakes. Strong winds could create high piles of ice on those lakes, according to the province.

Brad Knight, who farms in the Portage area, said he and other affected farmers were sacrificed to save everyone east of the diversion — including Winnipeggers — from the 2011 flood.

"All that any of us were asking for is to be treated fair. We saved everybody east of where we're standing," he said Tuesday.

Knight said the average payout of $300,000 that farmers received in flood compensation in 2011 may seem like a lot of money to people living in the city, but that's how much it costs annually to operate a farm.

"Unfortunately, in agriculture, the dollars are a little bigger than what maybe a lot of people inside the city realize," he said.

The province said it already gave out $115 million to property owners along the shores of Lake Manitoba for the 2011 flood, and it cannot give out any more money, in part because it's not receiving any more federal money.

But Joe Johnson, a farmer who took part in Monday's protest, disputed the province's claim.

"They might have spent $115 million, but that's building dikes which we're not responsible for building," he said.

"If there had been $115 [million] in actual monetary compensation, the people wouldn't have been standing down in the diversion. We'd all been millionaires."

Government officials obtained a court injunction on Monday to have the protesters removed from the diversion.

The blockade ended several hours later, when the farmers agreed to remove their machines from the diversion channel in exchange for a meeting with the province.

Johnson said the farmers are demanding a meeting with Premier Greg Selinger.

Protest becomes political battle

Debate over the diversion protest dominated question period on Tuesday, with the opposition Progressive Conservatives accusing the NDP government of refusing to pay the farmers for flood damage.

Progressive Conservative House Leader Kelvin Goertzen said Selinger should meet with the protesters to deal with their concerns.

"It's the height of arrogance, it's the height of disrespect, it is the height of contempt for members of the public that this government has … told them something and then not follow through," Goertzen said.

"The government should be ashamed of itself."

The NDP accused the Tories of using the protest for political gain.

After question period, Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton told reporters it was unprecedented and unacceptable for protesters to put communities from Portage to Winnipeg at risk by obstructing a flood control structure.

"Don't obstruct flood protection systems. Don't then, you know, use that as a pretext for wanting a meeting," he said.

"If you want a meeting, this is Manitoba. We can have meetings outside of that kind of approach. And if you want to protest, there's plenty of opportunities to protest as well."

Protest was legal, says Tory MLA

Tory MLA Ian Wishart, who represents constituents in Portage la Prairie, said organizers of Monday's protest had contacted the RCMP before moving their equipment into the diversion.

"They have every right to protest and they were exercising that right. They did not put anyone at risk," he said.

Wishart added that the farmers suspected they would eventually receive a court order to be removed from the diversion.

"When it was presented to them, they did as the court order described," he said.

"What more can you ask from a group that has had a great deal of difficulty being heard by this government?"

Wishart said the farmers are frustrated because three-quarters of their claims were denied, and those who have received payouts had less than half of their losses covered.

The province said 95 per cent of claimants received compensation.

Ashton said coincidentally, the province has been looking at increasing its authority to force people who don't want to leave their homes to do so.

Officials are still looking at further measures they might take regarding security, the minister added.

Reeve relieved diversion is open

Reeve Roger Poitras of the Rural Municipality of St. Francois Xavier, located along the Assiniboine River, says he is relieved the Portage Diversion is open.

At the same time, he warns that ice jams could still cause flooding along the river.

"It's my understanding [that] east of Harbour Cove, ice is starting to accumulate, and I'm told that the ice from Bay St. Paul to Portage is still solid ice. So all that ice has to come down," he said.

Poitras said the risk of flooding related to ice jams would have been much higher if the diversion was not operating.

Poitras said municipal officials will keep a close eye on homes along the Assiniboine "where there could be a potential for ice jamming, because they're very close to the river.

"That's what it is for the next few days, is just going to be monitoring the ice that comes down the river," he added.

The municipality has sand and bags available in case sandbag dikes are needed, said Poitras, who added that there are a number of homes along the river that could flood if an ice jam does form.

Court injunction

Below is the court injunction the Manitoba government obtained on Monday to remove protesters from the Portage Diversion: