As Manitoba prepares for possible flooding next spring, an additional flood risk looms from a lake drainage project in eastern Saskatchewan.
The Saskatchewan government is building an emergency channel to lower the level of Fishing Lake and alleviate the risk of flooding to nearby communities. Work on the project is scheduled to start Jan. 3.
Manitoba officials worry the additional water will drain into the upper Assiniboine River and increase an already-high flood risk for this province.
“Basically they’re digging this big ditch and they’re going to drain this massive amount of water into the Assiniboine River,” said Shari Decter Hirst, the newly elected mayor of Brandon.
“I don’t know what that means. I don’t know whether I’m going to get flooded out this spring or not.”
The danger isn’t just to Brandon, which sits on the Assiniboine, but to other communities downstream, including Winnipeg, Decter Hirst said.
“They’re talking about a similar situation to the flood of ’97, the flood of the century, and now we’re going to dump a huge bunch of water from the Assiniboine on it. This is a concern.”
Decter Hirst said she has raised the matter with the province, which is looking into it.
Manitoba Water Stewardship Minister Christine Melnick said the additional outflow from Fishing Lake could hit the Assiniboine in March, just in time for the spring thaw.
“It could very well affect levels on the Assiniboine. The flow from Fishing Lake could coincide with our peak in the spring. And that is a serious concern,” Melnick said after speaking to the recent Manitoba Conservation Districts Association annual convention.
Melnick said her department is trying to get more information about the project and its potential impact on Manitoba.
She said Manitoba cannot stop the work because it involves the interprovincial flow of water and is therefore a federal matter. Officials have contacted the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency but have not heard back yet.
Fishing Lake is a 38-square-km body of water 125 km northwest of Yorkton. High water levels in 2006 and 2007 caused widespread flooding damage to nearby communities. The province built protective berms around most of the communities and pumped flood water back into the lake. But spillover flooding continued this year because of an extremely wet summer.
The Saskatchewan Watershed Authority, a provincial regulator, announced emergency action Nov. 24 to protect nearby communities and First Nations. This involves constructing a drainage channel, raising berms and sandbagging where necessary.
“The channel will hasten the flow of flood water from the lake and reduce water levels before the spring flood,” the agency said in a statement.
Jim Waggoner, SWA manager for the east-central region, acknowledged much of the water will end up in the Assiniboine River.
But he suggested Manitoba’s fears about additional flooding are exaggerated.
Waggoner said the project will only expand existing drainage from Fishing Lake and will not lower the lake below its natural spill level. He said the draw-down will reduce the water level by only one foot from the current level. The additional outflow will be five cubic feet per second, doubling the flow seen at peak in August.
Even if all the water ends up in the Assiniboine, that’ll add only three per cent to what the river’s peak flow was in summer – not enough to exacerbate a spring flood, which is likely to occur anyway, Waggoner said.
But Melnick said the upper Assiniboine already has unprecedented high water levels and any additional water could be serious.
The river flow is regulated by the Shellmouth Dam, located northwest of Russell, which forms the Lake of the Prairies. The dam and reservoir are part of a strategy to reduce the risk of flooding on the Assiniboine River and in Winnipeg.
Melnick said the Shellmouth overflowed naturally this year throughout the summer – the first time that’s happened in the dam’s 38-year history. Officials hope a controlled release of water throughout the winter will lower levels enough to avoid major downstream flooding in spring.
But Fishing Lake is a wild card which could throw those plans for a loop, Melnick said.
She said her department is scrambling to assess the possible impact of the project but time is short.
“We’re hoping that there will be some action that can be taken to give us more time to assess this.” [email protected]
“Idon’tknowwhether I’mgoingtogetflooded outthisspringornot.”
– SHARI DECTER HIRST, BRANDON MAYOR