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Critics called it "Duff's Ditch" or "Duff's Folly," after former Manitoba premier Duff Roblin, who spearheaded the project.

But the 47-kilometre-long Red River floodway has saved Winnipeg from disaster several times and is the main reason people in the city are less worried about flooding than their neighbours upstream in North Dakota this spring.

"The floodway has prevented literally billions of dollars of damages to Winnipeg and the whole capital region," Premier Gary Doer said yesterday. "We stand on the shoulders of Duff Roblin."

The huge channel that diverts rising river water around Winnipeg was a mammoth undertaking when it was first proposed in the late 1950s. It was the second-largest earth-moving project on the planet up to that time, behind only the Panama Canal. The $63-million price tag was considered by some to be astronomical.

But now, Mr. Roblin is celebrated as a visionary.

The investment has paid off many times over. Opponents to the floodway are hard to find.

While cities and towns to the south rely on dikes and levees that can breach or erode, Winnipeg residents are protected by the permanent 300-metre-wide ditch that reroutes water from the Red River south of Winnipeg, carries it along the east side of the city and dumps it back into the Red just north of city limits.

Most of the year, the grassy ditch sits empty with only a trickle of water running through the bottom. Its banks are so large there is even a small ski hill that operates in the winter.

It's during the spring melt that the floodway proves its usefulness.

The push for the floodway followed a horrific inundation in 1950 that put much of Winnipeg under metres of water and forced 100,000 from their homes. Those who survived the flood still remember being evacuated as water swamped city streets.

"We got in my grandfather's car ... and I remember sitting in the back and going off the road and onto the railway tracks because the road was flooded out," said Paul Thomas, who was evacuated with his family at the age of seven and now teaches political science at the University of Manitoba.

Mr. Roblin's Progressive Conservatives formed a government in 1958 and started planning the massive ditch in the face of criticism from one of the opposition parties and many members of the public.

"We were still in a mindset that people who chose to live along a river ... should cover their own risks," Prof. Thomas said. Mr. Roblin "put his reputation on the line."

Construction of the floodway started in 1962 and was finished on budget in 1968. Since then, it has operated more than 20 times to keep Winnipeg dry, most notably during the so-called "Flood of the Century" in 1997 that turned areas south of the city into a 2,000-square kilometre lake and swamped Grand Forks, N.D.

For some, Mr. Roblin's determination is a lost art in a world where political policy is often shaped by opinion polls.

"He wouldn't make policy just on the basis of some philosophical orientation or the pressures of public opinion," Prof. Thomas said. "He was far more interested in the evidence ... and what was feasible."

The Manitoba and federal governments have just completed widening the ditch and raising the bridges that run above it. It can now handle twice the amount of water it did in 1997, when it was close to capacity. Forecasters say this year's river levels will be among the highest in decades, but not nearly as bad as in 1997.

Smaller towns to the south are protected by ring dikes which have been elevated since 1997. But Manitoba is not completely worry-free as the crest of the Red River arrives from North Dakota. Forecasters predict it will come over the weekend.

Most of the 800 residents of the Roseau River First Nation have been evacuated in recent days as a pre-emptive measure, as officials expect the flooding will force the closure of the community's ring dike and cut off road access. Another 50 people may be evacuated from the nearby community of Riverside.

To the north of Winnipeg, ice jams flooded some two dozen homes last week and could re-form as the weather remains cool. There are also a lot of frozen culverts throughout the province, blocking drainage and flooding fields.

The cold weather is providing a little more optimism for Manitoba's flood fight. The provincial government said yesterday the crest of the Red River between the U.S. border and Winnipeg should be a third of a metre lower than initially expected because of the slowing melt upstream in North Dakota.