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Workers erect a sign to let motorists know that County Road 22 near the Red River is closed due to flooding in Harwood, N.D. (Scott Olson/Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Workers erect a sign to let motorists know that County Road 22 near the Red River is closed due to flooding in Harwood, N.D. (Scott Olson/Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Manitoba awaits Red River's wall of water Add to ...

For Manitobans, the wall of water is coming.

They can see it in Fargo, N.D., where the Red River crested Sunday afternoon, a sure sign the surge will hit Winnipeg in three weeks. They can see it in the southern parts of the province, where bridges have already been closed over debris-laden rivers, and sand bags are being formed into protective walls. They can see it from Denis Benjamin's farm, where the Red River has already swamped a third of his acreage 275 kilometres north of Fargo.

And they can see it from the window of Wendy Bloomfield's Winnipeg home, which looks out on a row of sandbags nearly a metre tall. On Saturday, Ms. Bloomfield's friends and family joined dozens of volunteers to lay the wall of defence against a stretch of the Red River that, in 1997, burst its banks and filled the lower level of her home. It took six weeks to pump out, and a year to repair.

This time, though, "I think we've got more than enough now to protect from what's coming," said Ms. Bloomfield. "But you just really can't predict with rivers and mother nature."

The alarm bells sounded early for Manitoba this year, as officials surveyed a landscape primed for a deluge. Fall left the ground saturated, compromising its ability to suck up the spring melt. Then winter dumped a massive snow pack, which is now releasing a torrent of water.

"Most of southern Manitoba's rivers are going to experience near-record flood levels," said Steve Topping, the executive director of Manitoba Water Stewardship.

Worse, Winnipeg's two most important waterways could reach their apex at the same time, a confluence of crests that officials say has not occurred in recent history. The Assiniboine River is forecast to reach levels near its historic high, in 1976. The Red may exceed 2009 levels, which were the second-highest since 1856.

If the two come together at the same time, as appears increasingly likely, "that would cause a lot of trouble," said Dennis Kenny, a 92-year-old who has spent 43 years living along the Red River, not far from Ms. Bloomfield's house.

"Once that happens, they can't control it any more."

Officials, however, believe they have the situation in hand. Winnipeg measures its water by the level of the Red River at the city's James Avenue pumping station. In 1997's "flood of a century," water reached 24.5 feet, or 7.5 metres there. This year, "we're anticipating with the worst-case scenario, a coincidence of peaks, being at 24.1 - which is about four-tenths [of a foot]below the 1997 flood," Mr. Topping said.

"But we have the infrastructure to manage it."

Indeed, such confidence is commonplace around Manitoba today, which sits behind vast new networks of flood protection built with $1-billion after the 1997 devastation. The protective capacity of Winnipeg's Red River Floodway has been nearly doubled. Neighbourhoods have formed local flood committees with dike captains skilled in building sandbag levees. The number of communities protected by ring-dikes has risen from eight to 18. Some 1,800 farms and rural houses have been raised or protected by dikes 60 centimetres above 1997 flood levels.

Denis Benjamin, for example, hiked the level of his house by two metres; he now has a half-hectare plot of land with farm buildings and vehicles that sits well above anything but a possible one-in-700-year flood. That doesn't help the 325 hectares of land he hopes to plant with wheat, oats and canola. About 90 per cent of that will likely flood, some with up to four metres of water.

Indeed, the high levels of water are likely to produce major problems for farmers across the West - even in Alberta, major pooling in fields is stirring concern about the coming season. Mr. Benjamin just hopes he does better than 2005, when he was able to harvest just 0.6 hectares of land. The constant floods are making it "a real problem economically for us on the farm to make it," he said.

Elsewhere, though, authorities have acted early to protect vulnerable areas. This winter, for example, fears about Assiniboine flooding prompted 70 kilometres of dike upgrades to shield against flooding west of Winnipeg. The city itself has also been on high alert. This weekend, it began daily calls for 900 volunteers to help protect some 560 homes considered vulnerable. The Floodway was also opened.

So far, quick responses and better-than-expected conditions have helped avoid disaster. Flood waters crested lower than forecast in Fargo, for example, and well below the level of beefed-up dikes.

Still, the flooding has already caused pain and damage. On Saturday, a 61-year-old man drowned 50 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg when his pickup was swept away by a creek that flooded a road. In the United States, three deaths have been attributed to flooding, including those of two men whose boat capsized while they were hunting for beaver. A home north of Winnipeg was also flooded.

Officials say coming weeks will likely bring evacuations and flooded highways, renewing memories of 2009, when Highway 75, the critical artery connecting Winnipeg to the U.S., was closed for 35 days.

Adequate preparation suggests that houses and people should, however, largely escape unharmed. But, Mr. Topping said, "it will be a flood of inconvenience."

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