Manitobans should brace for "major flooding" in some regions as recent heavy snowfall and a prolonged winter have wiped out early predictions of only mild to moderate water swells for the province.
In issuing its spring flood outlook on Tuesday, provincial flood forecaster Phillip Mutulu said precipitation over the Prairies was 200 per cent greater than normal in March, while freezing temperatures have delayed the spring thaw, which could mean a rapid snowmelt as the mercury rises. It's a situation made worse, he added, when the frozen soil, which reaches down more than a metre in some places, cannot absorb all the excess water.
"This is not one of the most extreme events," Mr. Mutulu said in an interview.
Officials said flood-weary residents shouldn't expect to see a repeat of the devastating 2011 flood, which cost $1.2-billion and counting in disaster-relief payments. Some people still haven't returned home. This year's flooding will look more like the $60-million disaster that came in 2009, which was nonetheless a significant flood event.
"No one is pressing any panic buttons," Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton told reporters in Winnipeg.
"But this is Manitoba," he added, "… We're not taking anything for granted."
There is an increased risk of flooding along the province's Red, Souris, Pembina, Saskatchewan, Qu'Appelle and Assiniboine rivers, as well as in the Interlake region. The worst of it is projected to hit northern Manitoba and The Pas, and first nations communities can expect a "disproportionate impact," officials said.
The province has already reached out to aboriginal leaders, as well as federal officials.
William Sutherland, emergency co-ordinator with Peguis First Nation, which is home to 7,200 about 190 kilometres north of Winnipeg, said his team is frantically trying to protect 250 homes that are in the flood's path. People there are removing ice and snow from residences, while others set up wave-breakers and fill 8,000 sand bags. Officials are also trying to secure escape routes and dig out extra drainage.
"With all this snowfall, I don't know how March is going to end," Mr. Sutherland said. "If it heats up, we're definitely in for it."
He expects 1,000 people could face evacuation, while about 200 people forced away from the community after the 2011 flood still haven't been able to return home. Peguis is located in a deep basin or as Mr. Sutherland described it: "We were put here by the government; put in the swamp."
The U.S. National Weather Service is calling for moderate to major flooding in the waters that feed into Manitoba from North Dakota and Minnesota, which had major to record flooding in 2011.
In the 2009 flood event in Manitoba, hundreds of homes were either ruined or damaged. It exceeded the scale of a devastating flood event in 1950, in which 100,000 people evacuated and 10,000 homes were destroyed.
Mitigation efforts have helped keep the damage and impacts more manageable in recent years, provincial officials said. Floodways, ring dike protections and "very aggressive" ice-breaking efforts are all expected to help cut the amount of damage this spring, but evacuations are still likely.
Steve Topping, an executive director with Manitoba's Water Stewardship department, said the Red River floodway and the Portage diversion would be opened to help manage ice levels. The potential for ice jams, a serious contributor to flooding, is "very high."
Already, about 29 kilometres of ice-breaking has taken place as part of Manitoba's ice-jam mitigation program this year.
"We are going to aim to minimize disruption in terms of normal daily life, particularly the economic side," Mr. Ashton said. "We will be using every tool available to us in our flood management system."