Manitoba officials uncertain about controlled flooding

HOOP AND HOLLER BEND, Man. — Lourens Arendse was grading and bagging onions on his prosperous vegetable farm in south-central Manitoba as recently as Monday afternoon.

HOOP AND HOLLER BEND, Man. — Lourens Arendse was grading and bagging onions on his prosperous vegetable farm in south-central Manitoba as recently as Monday afternoon.

By Tuesday morning, he was frantically loading sandbags into his truck to try to protect his property in case a controlled release of water from the Assiniboine River proceeds.

The province initially said 150 homes could be affected by the release, but at least one municipal official said as many as 300 houses and some of the province’s most fertile farmland could be swamped.

However, on Tuesday afternoon provincial officials announced that one diversion channel was funnelling off more water than earlier anticipated and the controlled release might not be necessary if the river’s flow rate remained at the low end of the forecast.

If it is needed, a gradual diversion could begin as early as noon Wednesday. Prime Minister Stephen Harper also plans a fly-over of the flood zone on Wednesday with Premier Greg Selinger.

“We were totally caught off guard,” said Arendse, who owns LA Quality Products in the Rural Municipality of Portage la Prairie.

“We have one group sandbagging, one group laying sandbags, one group trying to get as much furniture out of the houses as we can. The unfortunate part of this whole scenario is that we didn’t get any real notice.”

Throughout southern Manitoba, urban and rural dwellers alike were scrambling to deal with what forecasters are now calling a one-in-300-year flood.

In Brandon, the water was the highest it’s been since 1882. But city crews, volunteers, army reservists and jail inmates seemed to be winning the battle against the swollen Assiniboine despite steady rain.

The situation was different further east. If necessary, the province could cut through barriers and allow the Assiniboine to spill over a 225-square-kilometre area to relieve pressure on downstream dikes.

That action would be taken if officials felt the river was likely to burst through dikes, which could swamp 500 square kilometres and 850 homes.

“It’s complete devastation in the making here,” said Arendse, who suggested any planned release would inundate all 121 hectares he hoped to harvest this year on his farm, which employs up to 50 people. He’s also got seven houses on his land for family and workers.

Nearby farmer Doug Connery, one of the biggest berry and vegetable growers in the area, said a decision to go ahead could put his operation out of business.

“I’m a fourth-generation farmer,” said Connery, who sells more than $5 million of produce a year and employs up to 150 people. “If they make this cut and it’s as bad as they say it’s going to be, this farm could be done.”

Many were wondering if it couldn’t have been another region to take one for the team.

“They are taking the most valuable agricultural land in the province and destroying it,” said Connery.

His assessment was echoed by Doug Chorney, president of Manitoba’s Keystone Agricultural Producers.

“It’s extremely great soil,” said Chorney. “Growing conditions are ideal. It’s a soil condition that is not really found anywhere else in the province.”

He said the region hasn’t experienced major flooding in decades.

Officials said the region was picked because it offers the best chance to control the release. It also provides easiest access for workers and equipment.

Flood protection equipment was being rushed to the area. As well, 200 military personnel were expected to be there by Wednesday to help in case of a release. Another 300 soldiers were on their way to Manitoba from Edmonton.

Federal Defence Minister Peter MacKay visited soldiers in Manitoba’s flooded areas to assess first-hand the work being done to assist in the flood fight.

He said up to 1,000 troops could eventually be on the ground in Manitoba to help reinforce infrastructure and assist with any further evacuations. Two Griffon helicopters were also being sent to the scene.

In Brandon, the Assiniboine River may have crested Tuesday.

“We are happy to see that the river seems to be levelling off. It hasn’t really changed since yesterday,” said Brian Kayes, the city’s director of emergency management.

“But with this river, and with this year, anything can change.”

Crews spent days building up earth dikes along the banks of the river and installing levees made of one-metre-high supersized sandbags along the two main roads linking the city’s north and south sides. The water was higher than the road, but there was still 30 centimetres or more of dry space at the top of the dike.

Small amounts of water were seeping through, so the effort Tuesday was focused on shoring up defences.

“We’re out there throwing dirt in order to control seepage … to ensure the dike has a good integrity,” said Ted Snure, acting city manager.

Police were patrolling an evacuated area on the city’s south side to ensure residents from about 400 homes were obeying orders to leave. Natural gas lines were shut off to homes due to fears that, if the dikes give way, flood water could shift underground pipes and break them.

Evacuees have been given up to $29.90 a person each day and told to find a hotel or relative’s home to stay. They were being allowed to return to their properties only to retrieve medication or check on sump pumps.

Some 500 homes on the north side of the river were told they might need to evacuate as well, but officials said that wouldn’t be necessary if dikes hold and the river doesn’t rise further.

On Tuesday, Agriculture Minister Stan Struthers also declared a livestock emergency in the province.

“Rising water in many areas of the province is affecting hundreds of producers and thousands of animals,” he said. “Today, I put out a call to action to producers to help one another during this emergency. Lending a helping hand to a neighbour can make a world of difference during an emergency.”

He said his department will identify Crown lands that will be made available for agricultural use. The land will be used to house livestock and store machinery until such time the water recedes and the land is no longer needed.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton and Steve Lambert in Brandon