Can you fight a flood by creating one?

This Manitoba man is gambling that he can
Water rushes through the Assiniboine River diversion along the Trans Canada highway just west of Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, May 13, 2011. Manitoba plans to open a dike along the swollen Assiniboine River on Saturday, in a desperate move that would flood a vast swath of farmland and at least 150 homes in the Canadian Prairie province but prevent an even worse disaster. REUTERS/Fred Greenslade (CANADA - Tags: ENVIRONMENT)
Can you fight a flood by creating one?
Fred Greenslade/Reuters

The bright red “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster went up on Steve Ashton’s office wall on May 7. Manitoba’s minister of emergency measures had originally given it to his son Alex as a gift last Christmas, but faced with a massive once-in-300-year surge in the Assiniboine River, the 55-year-old politician figured it might be of more use down at the provincial legislature.

It also happened to be the weekend he and his colleagues were grappling with a stark dilemma: let nature take its course, or intervene and create a smaller, and hopefully controllable flood of their own. The Assiniboine was rising at an unprecedented rate. As the Souris River joined the flow southeast of Brandon, the waters were already 1½ times greater than the last major flood in 1976. And plenty of rain was in the forecast.

For more than a month, Ashton had been locked into a schedule that moved from briefing, to meeting, to media conference, to more obligations. (And continues still: the conversation with Maclean’s was sandwiched in between a helicopter tour of the flood zone with opposition leaders and question period.) But by Mother’s Day it was becoming clear that weeks of frantic work to shore up dikes downstream at a cost of $25 million wouldn’t be enough. Neither would further tweaks to a floodway at Portage la Prairie that diverts water into Lake Manitoba. The predicted peak flows of more than 52,000 cubic feet per second would overwhelm the defences.

“The key decision point came that Monday,” Ashton says from his office. “It came down to two options: do nothing and risk a blowout of the dikes, or do our own release.” By 5:30 p.m. they had a recommendation for Premier Greg Selinger. At 6 p.m., they announced it to the media—backhoes would begin punching a hole in the earthen barrier at a place called Hoop and Holler Bend, with the express aim of flooding out as much as 225 sq. km and 150 homes. Left uncontrolled, said the province’s engineers, the waters of the Assiniboine would swamp 500 sq. km and 850 dwellings. A tough, but clear choice. “My first thought was for all the people in the area—all the stress and the anxiety,” says Ashton. “I wouldn’t say it was an easy decision, but when it came down to it we just couldn’t risk an uncontrolled breakout.”

An improvement in the weather and a little more pushing their luck on the Portage diversion bought them some time. The breach, originally scheduled for Tuesday, May 10, was pushed back to the Wednesday, the day Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to survey the swollen river and promise more federal assistance. Then Thursday. Then Friday. The delays gave surveyors time to map the lie of the land around the flood plain, providing homeowners with better estimates of just how high their defences would need to be—more than five feet in some spots. Provincial workers, volunteers and more than 1,500 Canadian Forces soldiers helped build the sandbag walls.

By Saturday, May 14, it was determined that the river would wait no longer. At 7 a.m., heavy machinery scooped away the last of the earth at the oxbow bend, cutting a 65-m wide channel. The most dire estimates had predicted the need to divert as much as 6,000 cubic feet per second—enough to fill four Olympic-sized swimming pools every minute. But for the first couple of days at least, engineers were able to ease the pressure off the Assiniboine slowly. The flow rate of about 500 cubic feet per second had water advancing across the muddy farm fields at less than a walking pace, swallowing a square kilometre every five hours.

The night before, Ashton visited Hoop and Holler Bend, a quiet stretch of Provincial Road 331, halfway between the hamlets of Southport and Newton about 80 km northwest of Winnipeg, but he stayed away during the operation. Already the NDP government’s highly exposed media point man for the crisis, he’s leery of anything that might be construed as grandstanding. The people on the front lines are working harder, he tells an interviewer. Wrestling with issues around a conference table can’t be compared to filling sandbags to save the family farm. But for 40 days and 40 nights, the minister of emergency measures has himself been in “flood mode,” watching the skies, worrying a lot and sleeping little. And it will be at least another week or two until he and his colleagues get the answer they’ve been searching for. Did they do the right thing?

Steve Ashton has never been afraid to gamble. During his university days he spent his summers ferrying around high explosives at the nickel mine in his hometown of Thompson, Man. In 1981, at just 25, he stood for election in his northern district, knocking off the incumbent Tory, a provincial cabinet minister, by 72 votes. It was the closest he ever came to losing. In 2007, he was re-elected for the seventh time, winning nearly 75 per cent of the vote.

He is also not averse to a fight. When Gary Doer stepped down as premier in 2009, Ashton launched a bid for the NDP leadership, challenging Selinger, the hand-picked successor. Described by the Winnipeg Free Press as a “politician of unwavering confidence and staunch ambition,” Ashton didn’t get much love from his colleagues—just two members of caucus, and no one else in the cabinet, endorsed him. But he sold thousands of new party memberships and rallied the province’s unions to his side, going as far as to walk the line with striking Manitoba Hydro workers, ultimately winning 34.2 per cent of the vote at the convention, and keeping his seat at the cabinet table.

Perhaps his independent streak comes naturally. Born in the U.K., he emigrated to Canada with his family in 1967, when his father, a chemist, found a new job working for Inco in northern Manitoba. (The five of them landed in Toronto and drove all the way to their new home in a ’65 Buick Le Sabre.) Politics and social activism were family passions, and have been carried on to the next generation—his daughter Niki Ashton is the federal NDP MP for Churchill.

“There was definitely politics at the dinner table every night,” says Niki, 28, recently re-elected for her second term. “But it wasn’t just adult conversation. My brother and I were always included. It was all about being part of a movement.” Dad was in the legislature before she was born. Her mother, Hari, was active on the local school board, and part of the National Action Committee for the Status of Women. (Steve met Hari, originally from Greece, when they were both on a student exchange in Slovenia. Among his other causes, he is chair of the Canadian Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.)

The biggest lesson about politics that Niki says she learned from her father is to listen. “He’s not a my-way-or-the-highway sort of guy,” she says. “He’s always shown me that you work with your community, you work with your team. And you change and adjust if things aren’t working.”

It’s similar to what Ashton himself says when asked if he’s learned any lessons from this inundation—the second major flood event in his three years as emergency measures minister. The communications loop, he acknowledges, may have been too closed. When plans for the deliberate cut were announced, there was a backlash from property owners in the affected zone, who felt they hadn’t been consulted. “I think we’re so focused on the technical side of this that we’re missing the fact that people have a lot of anxiety,” says Ashton. “And even if we don’t have all the answers, we have to tell them that we don’t have all the answers.”

At his direction, key officials were sent door-to-door in the zone to share what information they had. The move settled tempers a bit, but as the water trickles—rather than gushes—across the farm fields, residents are again openly asking whether their personal sacrifice was really necessary. Compensation will be a key issue in coming weeks, not just at Hoop and Holler Bend, but along the shores of swollen Lake Manitoba, and all along the Assiniboine. Premier Selinger has “guesstimated” that the flooding will cost the province at least $200 million this year. Over the past decade, Manitoba has already spent $1 billion on flood-control measures. And more money will surely be required going forward.

Ashton points to the successes—the Red River’s peak this year was higher that the great flood of 1950, but with little appreciable damage along its course. Planning for next year begins as soon as the danger has passed. “One thing we’ve learned about Manitoba is that you start the process almost immediately,” says Ashton. “I’m sure we’ll find some things.” Keep calm and carry on.