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Published June 21, 2009, 12:00 AM

Expanded diversion channel brings comfort to Winnipeg

WINNIPEG – On a sunny April morning, Tara Meneer’s 2-year-old son squirmed in her arms and pointed to a railroad bridge near the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in downtown Winnipeg.

By: Mike Nowatzki, INFORUM

WINNIPEG – On a sunny April morning, Tara Meneer’s 2-year-old son squirmed in her arms and pointed to a railroad bridge near the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in downtown Winnipeg.

“Choo-choo!” Daniel said, as if the sound would make another train appear.

Meneer and a friend had brought their broods to the children’s museum at The Forks, one of the city’s top tourist attractions.

Afterward they strolled across a 95-year-old, wood-planked bridge that once lifted to allow steamboats through.

Fifty years earlier, much of The Forks would have been invisible under the murky brown water.

But on this day, at the height of the spring flooding, Meneer enjoyed a carefree family outing, knowing her home was safe between the Red River and the diversion channel that defends this city of about 700,000.

“We don’t worry at all,” she said. “We feel pretty protected by the floodway.”

For 40 years, the Red River Floodway wrapping around Winnipeg’s east side has saved the city from a flood catastrophe.

It’s the kind of safeguard that elicits envy among Fargo-Moorhead leaders, and one that the Army Corps of Engineers will study between now and December as a potential solution to the metro area’s flooding problems.

Just as the corps has already said an F-M diversion’s benefits may not justify the cost, Winnipeg’s diversion and expansion also have faced naysayers, both past and present.

But few Manitobans would argue the province made the right call with the floodway, which has been used more than 20 times and prevented more than $10 billion in damage, said Steve Ashton, Manitoba’s minister responsible for emergency measures.

Work is wrapping up this year on a $665 million expansion that will more than double the floodway’s capacity and protect to a 1-in-700-year flood level.

“There was a very significant cost, there’s no doubt about that,” Ashton said. “But it has paid for itself 10 times over.”

From ‘folly’ to model

Like many Red River cities, Winnipeg has battled flooding since its founding.

In 1950, the Red River at Winnipeg reached its highest level in 89 years and forced 100,000 residents to evacuate the city. The flood destroyed 10,000 homes and caused $1 billion in damage in today’s figures, according to the Manitoba Floodway Authority.

Charles Dufferin Roblin, Manitoba’s premier at the time, proposed a massive earthen channel to divert water around the city during severe floods.

Critics pounced on the idea and its $63 million price tag, calling it “Duff’s Folly” and “Duff’s Ditch.”

Roblin made it a platform issue in 1959, and his government won re-election, giving him the political clout needed to pursue it.

“Premier Roblin was a very determined fellow, and he overcame the obstacles, and we are all pretty glad he did,” said Ernie Gilroy, CEO of the floodway authority.

Canada’s government split the project cost with the province. Construction started Oct. 6, 1962, and ended in March 1968.

To further control flooding, a dam was erected on the Assiniboine River in western Manitoba, and a diversion was dug from Portage la Prairie to Lake Manitoba to divert water from the Assiniboine into Lake Manitoba before the river reaches Winnipeg.

The total cost of all three projects was $94 million. The floodway would cost more than $1 billion to build today, according to a conservative estimate by the floodway authority.

Now, when the Red River in Winnipeg reaches flood stage of 18 feet, water begins to flow naturally over a weir and into the floodway channel on the south end of the city. The water flows through the channel around Winnipeg and empties back into the Red River just north of Lockport, Manitoba.

City still vulnerable

The 1997 flood, known in Winnipeg as the Flood of the Century, pushed the floodway’s limits.

“You could just feel the fear in the air,” Gilroy said.

After the flood, the International Joint Commission came up with two options for boosting the city’s flood protection: build a retention system – basically a dam across the Red River Valley south of Winnipeg – or expand the floodway.

The expansion won out, in part because of the existing floodway’s success, Ashton said. Construction began Sept. 23, 2005, and the expanded channel was substantially complete this spring. It passed its first test, easily handling the second-highest river flows of the past century.

In addition to the expansion, $130 million was spent to erect ring dikes around smaller cities and farmsteads and elevate rural homes onto mounds, protecting the entire river valley south of Winnipeg to a level of 1997 plus 2 feet.

Now, the province is looking at additional flood protection measures and possible buyouts north of Winnipeg, where unusual ice jam conditions caused major flooding issues this spring, Ashton said.

Feelings mixed about it

About 15 miles northeast of Winnipeg in Selkirk, many believe the floodway worsens flooding for them by sending water faster downstream, where it often runs into ice jams, said Shaylene Nordal, manager of the Marine Museum of Manitoba in Selkirk.

“It’s a pretty negative feeling toward the floodway here,” she said.

Alf Warkentin, Manitoba’s chief flood forecaster, said people draw the wrong conclusion about the floodway’s effects. From a physics point of view, “it is not logical at all,” he said. “The amount of flow is not being changed.”

However, because of the timing, Warkentin said he understands why people north of Winnipeg may make the connection.

“That’s unfortunate, but once perceptions are in people’s minds, it’s very, very difficult to change that,” he said.

Some south of Winnipeg also have issues with how the floodway is managed.

Bob Stefaniuk, mayor of the rural municipality of Ritchot, said he believes the floodway expansion was inadequate and won’t benefit Ritchot in the event of a 1-in-700-year flood.

“At that kind of a level of flood, their priority is to save Winnipeg, and we become sacrificial lambs,” he said.

When the floodway gates are raised, it forces the Red out of its banks upstream, flooding land but no homes south of the floodway.

Stefaniuk claims the floodway has been improperly used to lower the river level in Winnipeg in the summertime for the benefit of tourist attractions and at the expense of rural landowners south of the city.

Ritchot took the federal government to court over the artificial flooding issue, and it’s now being studied as part of a settlement agreement, Stefaniuk said.

Chris Lockyer, a Winnipeg resident dealing with riverbank erosion behind his own home, said city residents are aware of the floodway’s effects on those outside the city and the need for additional flood protection for them.

“I think there’s a lot of guilt in knowing that the province has to ante up,” he said. “It can’t be just to save the city and leave everybody out of it.

“But by the same token, it’s a money game,” he said. “Everything is about ‘save 10 houses at the expense of one.’ Farm fields, same idea. It’s a numbers game, that’s all it is.”

‘Broader vision’ needed

Despite a certain comfort level in the city, Winnipeg isn’t completely in the clear. City crews still had to build dikes and take steps to prevent sewer backup this spring.

“I don’t think we’re at the stage where you’ll be able to sit on your deck and have a pina colada and watch the river go by,” Gilroy said. “There’s too much power there.”

But the floodway’s impact is clear: The April 16 crest of 22.5 feet would have been 10 feet higher without it, forcing more than 100,000 people to flee.

The mitigation measures south of Winnipeg also are paying off. In 1997, Ritchot used 5 million sandbags and evacuated 4,000 of its 5,000 residents. This year, it used 300,000 sandbags, and 600 people voluntarily evacuated.

Ashton said such comprehensive flood protection requires someone to take the lead and “raise it up a notch,” as the provincial government did.

“You do get some controversy. You will always get some people that are, you know, it’s ‘not in my backyard,’ ” he said. “But if you’re going to protect the community, you really have to have that broader vision.”


Red River Floodway Video

Red River Floodway Tour


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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