A Manitoba First Nation forced from its land after flooding in 2011 is being warned that a new reserve site is as prone to high water as the old one.
Shirley Thompson and Myrle Ballard of the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba say Lake St. Martin evacuees are about to be relocated to land they'd lose in the next major flood.
The academics used agricultural soil surveys to examine three sites proposed for the relocation.
They concluded the site chosen is flood-prone and the worst of the three spots considered.
Government and Lake St. Martin officials announced the new location in May.
Both federal and provincial governments have dismissed the academics' concerns and First Nations leaders could not be reached for comment.
The new site is a combination of provincial Crown land and property purchased from two farming families. It sits next to the existing reserve but on slightly higher ground.
Thompson and Ballard have several misgivings. They say the ground is higher, yes, but not by much. And provincial agricultural soil surveys show the land is poorly drained and peaty.
The academics also say construction of two $250-million flood-fighting channels in the area will lead to higher ground saturation and increase the risk of overland flooding.
"On a multitude of levels, it's poor," Thompson said. "There is no possibility for cropping. The site needs major drainage and, usually, when the soil is too poor for agriculture it's because it's been flooded."
Locating a community of 1,000 or more people there would be costly and ultimately futile, she suggested.
"The cost of building houses and roads is going to be very high. They would have to build up the land or build differently, with no basements or on stilts."
Residents of Lake St. Martin were forced from their homes in May, 2011. Chronic flooding over several years left most homes uninhabitable and the ground saturated.
Ballard was born in Lake St. Martin and has relatives among the evacuees. She has made a life for herself in Winnipeg and won't be relocating. Still, the deal to move to the site next to the flooded reserve upsets her.
"Yes, they're going to get new homes, but if you build on a site that's wet, those homes are going to mould," Ballard said. "They'll be right back to square one. They're building on a site that's not fit for human habitation."
The federal government said in an e-mail from the Aboriginal Affairs Minister's office that "the lands in question were assessed by the province to have superior drainage capacity than the other pieces of land. Our goal is to ensure that the community is rebuilt in a suitable location that will not be subjected to future flooding."
The Manitoba government said, also in an e-mail, that a number of factors – including elevation and the ability to create proper drainage – were considered when selecting the site.
"In fact, if the land were to flood again in the future, the federal government would have a responsibility for repairing the damage and thus have not made the decision without due consideration."
The province says the land is safe from flooding and the Lake St. Martin First Nation has commenced development planning.