Saturday, 14 May 2011

Condolences, Reflections, and Suggestions


Lake Saint Martin First Nation Protest (Top): Members
of the First Nation protest in Winnipeg over poor
health conditions and flooding that has affected their
Golden Oak Cove, Cartier (Bottom): A homeowner paddles
from flooded home following flooding in the Cartier

Image Sources: CBC (Top)
Markoson's blog (Bottom)

I would like to give my condolences (whatever they're worth) to people affected by the floods. I've had the fortune of never living in a rural municipality prone to flooding (the worst I've ever experienced is basement flooding during the 1997 Red River Flood), so I can only imagine how traumatic it must be to lose your life's work and home (as many are right now).  

This situation is very dire - excessive snowfall that formed late in the year has contributed to overflowing in the Red and Assiniboine Rivers through ice jams. This is first time since 1852 that the region has had to face the combined force of both rivers flooding on massive scales at the same time. The statistical irony that a once in a hundred year flood, once in threes hundred year flood, and once in a thousand year flood can happen soon after each other and the fact that much of Southern Manitoba's best farmland sits on a flood plain provides reason to be concerned.

Earlier, various First Nations communities along Lake Manitoba had been affected. Lake Saint Martin First Nation, a community already with a variety of housing and health problems (including mold infestations), has witnessed flooding since May 10 with little help from the Department of Indian Affairs and some Provincial advisory. The tragedy there foreshadows what will occur during the controlled release, as the Portage Diversion actually diverts water to Lake Manitoba (whose shore front the community is on).  

Water going out the Portage Diversion:
Photo taken May 10, 2011, this diversion
protects Winnipeg
 and areas on the Assiniboine from
flood waters by diverting them to
Lake Manitoba.

Image Source: CBC

The situation is certainly worse than most people were predicting. Given the unprecedented rise in the Assiniboine river, the Province has scheduled a controlled release of the dike for later this day. Elie, Manitoba will be flooded. Even more catastrophic, wind action may overwhelm some of the sandbag dikes and, without some sort of a controlled breach, the Assiniboine River dike will likely would be overwhelmed. The Portage Diversion, meant for handling  flows of 25,000 cubic feet per second of water, is faced with 34,000 cubic feet per second this year.

All in all, this uncontrolled breach has the potential to cause great conflict between farmers, ranchers, cottage owners, rural First Nations communities, and Winnipeggers over how fair the move is.

Areas Affected Right Now

A few of the areas in Manitoba affected by flooding (either through the Red or Assiniboine Rivers, Lake Manitoba, or other lakes/rivers in Manitoba) so far include:
Winnipeg, with the exception of parts of the Forks and suburbs, has been sparred the flooding thanks to the Red River Floodway.

Controlled Breach

Assiniboine Dike Controlled Breach: The
225  kmarea south of Portage la Prairie where
flood waters will go. 150 homes are threatened,
but the diversion will save a 500 km2
area with more property.

Image Source: CBC
 Later this Saturday, there will be a controlled breach of the Assiniboine dike. The breach, according to various civil servants and engineers, is a necessary evil:

The breach would threaten about 150 homes in a 225-square-kilometre area, according to the province. It will then flow into the La Salle River basin, putting properties there at risk as well.

The release is necessary because many dikes holding back the river are stressed and should they fail, there could be uncontrolled flooding over a wider 500-square-kilometre area.
It's very unfortunate that many people's livelihoods will be ruined by this, even if there is special compensation for flooded properties. Some households surely have irreplaceable emotional significance. It would have been nice if the Province had built a more thorough flood protection system that could stand a once in a thousand year flood or both rivers overflowing, but this is all hindsight.

What You Can Do

Much of the sandbagging is over. But, if anyone has money to give, the Canadian Red Cross is collecting money to provide disaster relief for families affected by the flood.

What Policymakers Must Do

A 1/100 year flood can happen right by a 1/500 year flood, which in turn may happen close to the date of a 1/1000 year flood. We don't know the exact timing of these events. Flood preparation should fall under the assumption that the province will face something worse than the worst case scenario.

We can't trust with great confidence all our scenarios because our models don't take climate change into account. As a report conducted by researchers Scott St. George and Erik Nielsen (affiliated with the Geological Survey of Canada and the Manitoba Geological Survey respectively) noted:

Global Circulation Models suggest that, by the middle of the 21 century northern Great Plains will experience increased interannual variability and more extreme climatic events. Research on the Mississippi River has demonstrated that small changes in mean temperature and precipitation in the past have caused disproportionally larger increases in the size and frequency of floods. However, the influence of any potential future climate change on flood hazards in Manitoba is unknown. In fact, traditional analytical techniques used to determine flood risks assume that climate (and therefore the likelihood of flooding) does not change over time. This assumption is at odds with the recognition that climate naturally varies at all scales and that climate additionally is responding to human activities over the past century.
(My emphasis added)

Given the precautionary principle and the precedent of the $6.5 billion in savings the Floodway gave Winnipeg in 1997*, the downsides of not preparing the province for a catastrophic, worse than worst case scenario flood outweigh the costs doing so.

Certainly, the minister responsible for emergency measures Steve Ashton has said that the Province plans to expand the flood defense system along the Assiniboine. I would also recommend expanding the Red River Floodway and dike protection along Lake Manitoba for First Nations communities.

And, hopefully, the Province is serious when it says serious compensation will be had for flooded property. The output for Manitoba farmers will be horrible after these floods, with many ruined**, though those who make it through the flood will be doing quite nice given the supply shock for wheat.

And lastly, while it is nice that Stephen Harper is visiting afflicted farmland in Southern Manitoba, it would also be nice if his*** Indian and Northern Affairs Department would visit flooded reserves****.  Both the Provincial and Federal governments need to view the aftermath of this flood as a wakeup call when it comes to basic services and economic development for many of Manitoba's First Nation communities.

*According to St. George and Nielson, the Winnipeg suffered $500 in damage during the 1997 Red River flood, but could have faced $7 billion in damage without the floodway.
**According to the Canadian Wheat Board, too much moisture has resulted in only 3% of seeds being sown, compared to a regular 40%!
***It is The Harper Government™ after all!
****Indian and Northern Affairs Canada could also, perhaps, consider subsidizing water shipments to First Nation communities, like Wasagamack, where 90%  of households lack running water.


  1. Good post.

    It has been a rather dramatic day with the opening of the dike.

    Western Manitoba has begging for attention to the area and the threat of flood for years. The government was far too Winnipeg-centric and while the Red River Floodway got priority, ditches, dams, diversions and reservoirs got backburnered.

  2. Governments seem to have a very horrible optimism bias when it comes to uncertain future events, especially when a more pessimistic forecast costs more money. While the Province hasn't invested as heavily as it should in a lot of rural areas, I find the sudden announcement of special compensation for areas affected by the diversion surprising as there seldom are talks about what to do with damages incurred by Lake St. Martin First Nation. Given the Portage Diversion diverts water into Lake Manitoba, I'd be surprised if present Provincial flood protection plans don't exacerbate Lake St. Martin's woes.