Winnipeg fights costly battle against riverbank erosion

Any boat trip along the Red or Assiniboine — the city’s two largest rivers — reveals wet, newly exposed soil and trees

WINNIPEG — Brian Evans has a front-row seat to the slow but steady, and seemingly unstoppable, erosion that is eating away at Winnipeg’s riverbanks.

The shoreline of his property on the Red River is secure for now, thanks to stabilization work done after the 1997 flood that swamped much of the river valley. But as he gazes across the Red, he sees the opposite bank receding.

“You can see where there’s easily 10 to 12 feet that have disappeared in the last couple of years,” Evans says.

“When you go down the river, the areas that have not received (stabilization), the bank has peeled back sufficiently enough where large trees have fallen into the water.”

Any boat trip along the Red or Assiniboine — the city’s two largest rivers — reveals wet, newly exposed soil and trees with exposed roots leaning over the river.

The annual rise and fall of the city’s rivers and creeks causes erosion as in any riverfront community.

What exacerbates the problem in Winnipeg is its soil. In most places, it’s a heavy, sticky clay gumbo that can fall apart in large chunks.

“Clay is very weak so … you get these deep-seated failures that we see in quite a few places in the city,” says Kendall Thiessen, the city’s riverbank management engineer.

Occasionally, a section of riverbank that’s on the verge of collapse prompts quick action.

After the flood of 1997, 108 graves at the Elmwood Cemetery had to be moved due to a failing shoreline. About $1.5 million in public money was spent to rebuild and stabilize the bank — a process completed in 2005.

“It’s working. We haven’t had any further loss of bank,” says Jim Baker, executive director of the non-profit group that runs the cemetery.

Baker’s group is one of the fortunate ones.

There are more than 100 kilometres of publicly owned shoreline in the city and almost as much in private hands. City hall estimates the cost of addressing critical and moderate-need publicly owned areas would be about $200 million. But the budget is far less — only $1 million is spent in an average year.

Homeowners such as Evans say the city needs to ramp up its efforts, and that the provincial and federal governments need to step up as well.

“This is going to require three levels of government to address this problem or we’re going to continue to see the erosion of the banks,” Evans says.

“Ultimately, they will be at the back door of homes.”

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