’A murky, muddy mess’

The province has called in the troops to battle the Assiniboine River
'A murky, muddy mess'
Roads closed: Bryan Ezako boats home in St. François Xavier, Man.

Hours after the Manitoba government declared a provincial state of emergency this week to deal with “unprecedented and historic” flooding of the Assiniboine River, Steve Ashton, the minister of emergency measures, announced the government’s decision to break Assiniboine dikes and release “controlled” water—an unusual plan that speaks to an increasingly unmanageable situation. The release of 2,000 to 6,000 cubic feet per second of water will affect 150 rural properties. Ashton said it wasn’t an easy decision, but it was a necessary one: an uncontrolled release would put 850 homes at risk.

Since early April, the floods—underestimated by faulty river gauges, and caused by a series of wetter-than-average springs—have displaced about 2,000 people. And the government has estimated that the final bill for damages could be $100 million. (The 2009 flood cost Manitoba $70 million.)

The same day a state of emergency was declared, some 800 members of the Canadian Forces arrived. Their job? Help top up existing dikes, fortify previously unprotected properties, and deploy mobile flood protection equipment to high-risk areas. Brandon, Manitoba’s second-largest city, is one of the high priorities. On May 7, the water level in Brandon measured 1,181 feet, the highest it’s been since 1923. An evacuation order was issued this week for those in about 900 homes and businesses in “the Flats, an area south of the river in Brandon. (Winnipeg, with three major water diversions, remains relatively safe.) “It’s a murky, muddy mess,” says Matt Goerzen, an editor for the Brandon Sun.

Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says First Nations communities are disproportionately hurt by the floods since their poor diking systems are “nowhere near” able to displace the water. He says “major policy issues” must be addressed. But for now, it’s a race against time as the flood-fighters try to mitigate the effects of a rising Assiniboine.