No summer floodway use to control Winnipeg river levels: report

The Red River Floodway should not be used during the summer to control water levels in Winnipeg, according to a report commissioned by the former NDP government and made public after the Progressive Conservatives took power.

Analysis shows riverwalk submerged nearly one-third of summers since it was built

Paul Jordan, CEO of The Forks, said he does not believe it's feasible to move the riverwalk, which has been submerged for 29 per cent of the summer months since construction began in 1989. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

The Red River Floodway should not be used during the summer to control water levels in Winnipeg, according to a report commissioned by the former NDP government and made public after the Progressive Conservatives took power.

A review of provincial flood-control infrastructure operating guidelines, ordered up by the Selinger government in 2013 and completed in 2015, concludes the floodway should not be used to prevent the Assiniboine riverwalk and other riverbank recreational amenities in Winnipeg from being submerged during the summer.

The document, authored by a panel of high-profile consultants, was published with zero fanfare after the Pallister government took power and was made aware of its existence, said a spokesman for Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Blaine Pedersen.

A provincial report, dated August 2015, recommends against using the Red River Floodway to control summer water levels in Winnipeg. (Manitoba Infrastructure & Transportation)
​"The panel is not recommending a new guideline for summer operation of the Red River Floodway. This does not mean that the panel thinks summer use is a bad idea," consultant Harold Westdal, hydrologist Rick Bowering and civil engineer Barry MacBride — Winnipeg's former water and waste director — state in the report.
The negative recommendation is due to the fierce public opposition, non-existent support at public meetings, and because summer operation violates three of the four criteria used to assess project effects.
Paul Jordan, chief executive officer at The Forks, says Winnipeg is missing out on economic development, recreation and tourism opportunities when the riverwalk is closed. 2:21

"The core issues respecting summer operation is upstream opposition. In the panel's opinion, the summer use option has unintentionally been positioned as an 'us vs. them,' i.e. winners in Winnipeg with adverse effects/losers upstream.

"The only chance for summer operation of the floodway to become a reality would be to bridge the differences between residents in Winnipeg and residents upstream. People upstream would need to see that their interests are being looked after and that measures are undertaken so they too might benefit from development of our river system. "

In deference to the review, the Pallister government has no interest in activating the floodway outside of major floods, Pedersen said in a statement.

"Factors noted in the review include the consequences of artificial flooding in areas connected to the floodway and the associated costs of activating the floodway outside of flood events," Pedersen said.

Forks unaware of report

Paul Jordan, chief executive officer at The Forks, which maintains the Assiniboine riverwalk, said he was not aware the study had been completed. He also was not surprised by the conclusion.

"The way the floodway works means we have to back the water up into St. Adolphe to control the water levels here. You know, it's unfair to ask somebody else to take on your problems," Jordan said.

Using the floodway to control Red River levels during the summer would not have prevented the riverwalk from being submerged by high water on the Assiniboine River, Jordan said.

"I think it's a much bigger picture than just one solution. I hear 'Raise the riverwalk,' I hear 'Use the floodway.' I think there has to be more of a collective discussion on just exactly how we're going to tackle this and I think, No. 1, we have to use our rivers differently," he said.

Raising the riverwalk above the current height — 8.5 feet above the normal winter ice level at the James Avenue monitoring station — would place the riverwalk too far away from the river when it does sit at the normal summer level, which is 6.5 feet James, Jordan said.

According to a CBC analysis of Environment Canada river-level data, The Forks had a good reason to place the riverwalk at 8.5 James. 

The Red River Floodway should not be used during the summer to control water levels in Winnipeg, according to a report commissioned by the former NDP government and made public after the Progressive Conservatives took power. 2:03
From 1971 to 1988, the year before construction on the riverwalk started, the walkway would have been submerged by floodwaters only 5.9 per cent of the time during June, July and August, the three months when recreational activity peaks in Winnipeg.

But from 1989 to 2016, the riverwalk was submerged 29.3 per cent of the time in June, July and August. In 2011, it was underwater every day during the three summer months.

(CBC News Graphics)
Jordan said the numbers jibe with his experience at The Forks.

"I'm not surprised at all. As a matter of fact, I thought they might have been a little more extreme," he said.

Jordan said Winnipeg is missing out on economic development, recreation and tourism opportunities as a result.

"There are cities that would die for having rivers go through them," he said. "We need to start thinking of our rivers in the way we probably thought about using them 100 years ago, that they were a place of connection and a place of recreation."

(CBC News Graphics)
Jordan blames drainage from Saskatchewan for driving up Assiniboine River levels and said the Prairie provinces must stop using rivers as drainage ditches.

Academics, however, say increased drainage likely exacerbates early spring flooding more than it causes summer floods.

Climate change likely is not the cause, either, said Danny Blair, a University of Winnipeg climatologist and a science director at the Prairie Climate Centre.

"I think there is some truth to the fact there are some cycles in the precipitation regime. Most people have the perception there are wet periods and dry periods and there is some truth to that," he said, adding climate-change models predict wetter springs but drier summers on the Prairies.

A seating area and steps that would usually lead to the riverwalk were flooded out in May of 2015. (James Turner/CBC)

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.