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Manitoba relieved as water seeps slowly through breach in dike

Canadian soldiers re-enforce a soft spot in the dike along the Assiniboine River Sunday, May 15, 2011 in Poplar Point, Manitoba. Even with all the high water this year, Manitoba's system of dikes, dams and diversion canals has protected the vast majority of buildings. Only 100 homes across the province have been flooded so far, according to government statistics, and only 10 have had flooding above the basement level.

Ryan Remiorz/Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Weeks' worth of tension over the prospect of rampant flooding and loss of homes in southern Manitoba has eased slightly after work crews punched through a river dike to launch a controlled flooding experiment.

Rather than gushing madly from the swelling Assiniboine River, water began to move through the strategic breach at Hoop and Holler at 400 cubic feet a second, which officials described as a walking pace - slower than they expected. Throughout Sunday, the leak seeped its way across farm fields and into ditches towards the several dozen abandoned, sandbag-shielded homes in its path. The area was chosen as a sacrifice to protect a wider swath of homes and property downstream that would have been inundated in an uncontrolled breach.

By late afternoon, the water had travelled 3.2 kilometres to the south and about 1.6 km to the east, reaching only three homes in the breach zone. The chances of it swallowing up dramatically more began to dim; officials revised their estimate of the affected zone downward to 180 square kilometres from 225. That was good news for a province exhausted by worry that mounted throughout last week as the Assiniboine moved towards an historic swell and officials waffled over whether to save a great many at the expense of a few.

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"If I looked back to where we were a week ago, I'd say we've made some real progress. But we're not done yet," said Steve Ashton, the province's minister responsible for emergency measures. "We can't in any way, shape or form take anything for granted."

That includes the current kindness of the water's flow. While levels downstream of the Hoop and Holler breach have stopped climbing, flow on the Assiniboine is still building toward a peak forecasters say will hit on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Numerous dikes are still under stress from the pressure of the swell, which is pitching towards levels not seen in three centuries. About 1,500 Canadian troops are working around the clock to shore up vulnerable spots around the river, including some that have started to leak. At least 100 more soldiers have been requested as flood forecasters grow more certain that a number of lakes in the province, including Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg, will overflow.

So far, more than 3,600 Manitobans have been asked to leave their homes and cottages in preparation for the deluge. Only about 150 of those live in the area affected by Hoop and Holler breach. Provincial officials are still pleading for volunteers to help communities stay ahead of the floods as fatigue sets in.

"Until river levels on the Assiniboine go down significantly, this is going to be a 24/7 flood fight," Mr. Ashton said.

Long-term risk to the province's farms remains high, prompting talks with the federal government over special post-flood compensation packages.

"We're going to see some fairly significant disruption of agriculture in various locations across Manitoba," Mr. Ashton said.

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