Prairie flooding needs permanent fix: native leaders

Native leaders whose communities have been most affected by Prairie floods year after year are pleading for a permanent solution, as officials continue to work around the clock to deal with the worst flooding the Prairies have seen in 150 years.

Native leaders whose communities have been most affected by Prairie floods year after year pleaded Tuesday for a permanent solution, as the region struggled with the worst flooding the Prairies have seen in 150 years.

Nearly 700 people on reserves in Manitoba and 440 in Saskatchewan have been forced from their homes by flooding.

Floodwaters are still rising in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In Manitoba, the Red River and Assiniboine River are on the verge of cresting any day now and Saskatchewan officials warn the flood threat will last at least until the end of the month.

At least 32 municipalities in Manitoba have declared states of local emergency and 55 provincial roads are fully closed.  

Ice jams have already been pushing water levels over the banks for many communities in Manitoba even though crest levels are still at least a week away. Although the Red River is virtually ice free now, ice flowing west to east along the Assiniboine is pushing water levels up around the Winnipeg area. Forecasters say it's possible the Red and Assiniboine Rivers will both crest in Winnipeg near the end of the month.

The ice jam along the Assiniboine over the weekend is moving east toward Winnipeg, where a 0.3-metre rise in water levels is expected Tuesday, said CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe.

The weekend precipitation has been taken into account. Although the forecast crest levels are pretty much the same for the major rivers, smaller tributaries may experience a double crest as the new precipitation enters into the watershed. Many tributaries in Saskatchewan will actually experience their first crest over the next couple of days, she said.

"Temperatures are rising across the west as well; this will increase snowmelt although luckily overnight lows should remain cold enough to moderate the rate."

Near the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border, Ed Houle has just 48 hours to save his home. The Assiniboine River, which lies at the foot of his backyard, is expected to crest on Thursday.

"It's just seeping in," he told the CBC's Marisa Dragani. "I got two pumps down there. Hopefully, the power doesn't kick off. If it does, I'm in deep trouble," he said.

Micheal Handler stands on his flooded property in Petersfield, Man., as Premier Greg Selinger warns the worst may not yet be over. (Tevor Hagan/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press)

In Manitoba, the rising floodwaters have forced hundreds of people from their homes and most of the affected houses are on three First Nations reserves. It's a situation that has happened before, leading to a lot of anger and frustration among residents.             

"It's been like that every year. ... Sick of it, yeah, but what can you do?" said Philip Sinclair who was filling sandbags and building dikes on the Peguis First Nation, north of Winnipeg.

This is the sixth flood in three years. Already, the Fisher River has surrounded or filled nearly 200 homes with water. More than 500 people from this community have left as part of a voluntary evacuation.

Aurilia Thickfoot, 96, has left in previous floods, but says she's determined to stay this time: "Because the other times, they put me in that hotel by the airport. They put me on the main floor and the room was filthy, dirty, stinking."

She said it's time Ottawa did something to protect homes like hers.

"It makes me angry what they do to us, that's how they treat us Indians, and they think it's good enough for us."

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15 Sask. communities declare state of emergency

In Saskatchewan, 15 communities have declared states of emergency and more than 400 people on two First Nations have been forced from their homes by flooding.

The main road on the Red Earth First Nation has been washed out.

Band councillor Charlie McKay said these floods are becoming too frequent. 

McKay said it's time the province and Ottawa consider a longer term solution, to avoid floods in the future.

"This is our third time. I think there's something that could be done or something that could be avoided," McKay said.

"I don't think the people want to see a fourth one." 

Ignatieff promises flood-relief plans

At a campaign stop in Winnipeg Tuesday, Leader Leader Michael Ignatieff laid out a Liberal plan to deal with springtime Prairie flooding.

The two-year, $225-million fresh water strategy is contained in the Liberal platform. Ignatieff said the plan involves looking at the "best science" to develop long term solutions to the problem of flooding.

It also involves the federal government working with the provinces and municipalities. The plan would solicit advice from hydraulic engineers, water experts and community leaders.

Ignatieff said the plan would also look at how best to clean up Lake Winnipeg, the 10th largest fresh water lake in the world. Lake Winnipeg is said to be deteriorating and in the state that Lake Erie was in the '60s.

Ignatieff said there is a need to work with aboriginal leaders to deal with the issue of flood protection on reserves.

"It's extremely important to base a fresh water and flood prevention strategy on the best science," Ignatieff said.

"There is legitimate disagreement about what is the best way to go here. We need to get a scientific consensus, a community consensus, on the best way to go. And that is why I think investment in a fresh water strategy is a national project that will help us to identify exactly how we get long-term solutions to this problem."

Steve Ashton, Manitoba's minister responsible for emergency measures, said nearly $1 billion has been spent to protect the Red River Valley in Winnipeg, and areas north of the city. But there is no on-going fund, and no national strategy.

"We have been providing assistance during this flood event. Do these communities need permanent flood mitigation? Absolutely," he said.

"When you're looking at First Nations, the most important thing is the impact it has on people — many of same people are being evacuated [again]."

Ashton told CBC News Network that Manitoba is seeing "overland flooding on an unprecedented geographic scale."

"Pretty well from The Pas south in Manitoba we have some degree of flooding in the vast majority of our municipalities," he said.

Officials there are watching the crest on three rivers — the Assiniboine, the Red and the Souris, Ashton said.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper called Manitoba's premier last weekend to talk about the flood. Greg Selinger told him First Nations communities are the most vulnerable and need help.

The chief of Peguis said permanent flood protection, including a diversion and permanent dyking, will cost between $30 million and $190 million.

The department of Indian Affairs said it has set aside $750,000 for dikes and to relocate and elevate 75 at-risk homes. It has also spent $3 million on sandbags and labour costs.

Meanwhile, people living in the Red River Valley, south of Winnipeg are having a hard time getting around.  They're isolated because many of the roads are either washed out or under flood water. And water levels are still rising.

On Monday, the province shut down Highway 75, the main highway between Winnipeg and the U.S. border, severing a major transportation link.

"Every mile costs a lot of money, just with the detours and extra miles, it's a lot of extra cost. For us, it's huge. Drivers have to put on more hours," said Bill Brandt, co-owner of a trucking company based in Morris, Man.

Local businesses are also hurt when the highway is flooded.

"Unfortunately, I will probably cut back on staff. The restaurant hours get shortened," said Liz Wiebe, who manages a gas bar and restaurant.

Morris has benefited from the $1 billion spent on flood-proofing the Red River Valley since the "Flood of the Century" in 1997. It has a permanent ring dike that keeps it dry.