Hundreds of people left their homes and dozens of highways were under water as the Prairies continued to grapple Wednesday with the early advances from spring floods.
Some property owners in Alberta were able to return after an overnight mandatory evacuation, but others in Saskatchewan and Manitoba were watching rising waters with trepidation.
Almost 400 people in Manitoba — 300 of them from the Peguis First Nation north of Winnipeg — left to stay ahead of the deluge. In Saskatchewan, 150 people were told to leave the Cowessess reserve east of Regina.
Officials said a record number of Manitoba highways, 55, had been affected and there were 300 closures on municipal roads. A section of the Trans-Canada westbound lane from Grenfell to Sintaluta, east of Regina, remained closed Wednesday because of water on the road.
And the brunt of the spring flood is still several weeks away.
Steve Ashton, minister responsible for emergency measures in Manitoba, said many of the evacuations in his province were precautionary because flooding was cutting off access to many of the homes.
“Most of the evacuations taking place right now are not because of direct flooding,” Ashton said. “These are because of access issues. We have to ensure we have full access into homes to provide emergency services.”
Provincial officials said overland flooding, ice jams and swollen streams were affecting an unprecedented number of communities across Manitoba. Much of the flooding in previous years has been restricted to the Red River Valley.
Ashton said this year is different. Rivers are overflowing and the ground is soggy across the Prairies because some areas received twice the amount of precipitation they normally do.
“We are certainly dealing with flooding that’s certainly on an unprecedented geographic scale,” he said. “The scope is very significant.”
Although officials have downgraded their predictions slightly, Ashton said this year’s flood will be at least as bad as it was in 2009 when river flows, ice jams and ice-blocked drainage systems caused serious trouble in southern Manitoba. The water crest on the Red River two years ago was the second-highest since 1852.
John Fahlman with the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority said some areas in that province could also see near-record flooding.
The Qu’Appelle River is expected to overflow along the entire Qu’Appelle valley in the coming weeks, he said. The river runs from Lake Diefenbaker, northwest of Regina, across Saskatchewan to the Manitoba boundary.
“The western side of the basin at least is shaping up to be higher than all the events we have records of since 1912, except 1974 — 1974 was a really big year,” Fahlman said. “We still expect some significant inundation and flooding along the valley floor.”
On the Wascana Creek watershed, which runs through Regina, the city was sandbagging in preparation for water levels to reach a one-in-25-year high.
“The major inflows that are coming have not yet reached Regina,” he said. “We expect that in the next few days and peaking, again, in a week or 10 days similar to the other Qu’Appelle basin, depending on the weather.”
The flood threat subsided slightly in southeastern Alberta where 41 homes in the Medicine Hat area had been evacuated. That order was lifted Wednesday, but a voluntary alert remained in effect for hundreds of others.
The alert went out Tuesday night because the earthen dam at the Seven Persons reservoir was eroding from all the water. But Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner, who toured the area Wednesday, said that was no longer a problem.
“The water that is coming out of that dam is flowing right straight through it. For all intents and purposes it has already failed, but it didn’t do it catastrophically,” he said.
But he warned the region wasn’t out of danger.
“We have averted potential disaster, but everyone is still watching very closely to see if we’re going to get the remainder of the melt through the system without further damage”
A snowfall warning for the area could worsen the situation.
— With files from Jennifer Graham in Regina and Bill Graveland in Calgary