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Ambitious flood plan in the works for Manitoba

Homes are surrounded by water in Souris, Man. on Monday July 4, 2011.

Tim Smith/The Canadian Press

Manitoba is rolling out an ambitious plan to drain two rising lakes before next year's flood season starts - an expedited engineering feat that would normally take years and whose price tag will likely extend into the hundreds of millions.

A plan to dig new channels draining water out of Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin was suggested and rejected in the 1970s. The cost wasn't deemed worth it. Now, says Premier Greg Selinger, that's changed.

"We're seeing more water than we've ever seen before," he said in an interview Monday. "It requires us to look at how we can relieve the pressure on those lakes so people can return to their homes and have a greater sense of predictability of what they're going to see in the future."

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Predictability is one thing there's been precious little of during this flood season. The province is undergoing the kind of deluge that's supposed to come around once every three centuries.

There are still close to 3,000 people who've left their homes; residents along the Souris River waited for the waterway to crest as early as Tuesday, as hundreds of troops from Canadian Forces Base Shilo helped with last-minute sandbagging amid storm warnings from Environment Canada.

Amid that rushed preparation, six people - five of them military personnel - were rushed to Brandon hospital Monday afternoon after a dump truck's hydraulic hose broke, spraying fluid. They were released from hospital Monday evening, and were expected to resume their duties Tuesday, a CFB spokeswoman said.

"The next few days are going to be iffy. I just don't know what's going to happen," said Souris resident Marilyn Pierce.

Ms. Pierce owns a local bed and breakfast in the 1,800-person community. She lives "on the good side of the river," she said, a block away from the historic swinging footbridge destroyed over the weekend for fears that if floodwaters carried it away, it would pierce a dike downstream.

"And they said if the river's high this year, just wait until next year," Ms. Pierce said. "Our ground level is just absolutely saturated."

Concerns that next year's flood could be as bad as this year's are driving the province to take the unusual step of speeding up the drain-designing process.

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The province announced Monday it's tasking two engineering firms to look into possibilities for lowering the lake levels - "compressing," Mr. Selinger said, "what would normally take a-year-or-more's work into several weeks and months to look at options."

He said engineers from AECOM and KGS Group have been looking at this since the province put in the request several weeks ago.

"We asked them to start looking at what was possible," Mr. Selinger said. "Now we've given them a full mandate to continue with that."

Water from Lake Manitoba runs down into Lake St. Martin and, from there, through the Dauphin River to Lake Winnipeg. The idea here is likely to dig a channel that would divert water in the same direction, but give the two lakes' rising levels a little extra breathing room.

"The water does have to go somewhere. It's not just going to disappear," said Shawn Clark, a water resources engineer with the University of Manitoba. "It's a big deal. … We're talking a lot of excavation, a lot of design work. You can't just get a guy out there with an excavator and tell him to go."

This year's floods have already cost the province more than half a billion dollars in both flood-fighting measures and compensation for waterlogged landowners, farmers and residents. While the province has a cost-sharing agreement with the federal government on disaster financial assistance, Mr. Selinger said officials are pushing for Ottawa to contribute to this drainage plan on the grounds that it counts as an emergency measure. "It's an emergency solution to a serious flooding problem," he said.

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There's no way the province could have predicted floodwaters of this magnitude, Mr. Selinger said.

"We planned for the worst flood event on record, which was 1976, and then added two feet to that in terms of the dikes we built," he said. "We planned for the worst possible case we've ever known about. This just went way beyond that."

By the numbers


Number of CFB Shilo personnel sandbagging in 1,800-person Souris, Man. on Tuesday.


Number of people (five of them military) taken to hospital with injuries incurred during emergency sandbagging in Souris on Monday.


Number of Manitobans who left their homes for safety reasons, as of Monday.


Feet above normal levels Lake Manitoba is forecast to be when it crests later this month.


Spent on flood mitigation and flood-proofing leading up to 2011 flood season.


Spent fighting 2011 floods.


Expected compensation for Manitobans affected by this year's floods.


Spent on compensation during the last big flood in 2009.


Committed for Agri-Recovery program announced last week.


Projected costs, over the next several years, for additional flood mitigation and prevention.

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