Dozens evacuated as floodwaters test Rivers dam

WEATHER: Residents downstream of Rivers, Man., are holding their breath as they wait to see if the dam, which holds back Lake Wahtopanah, will hold

Dan Lepp had gotten little rest by the time he drove away from his family’s mixed farm near Rivers the morning of July 2.

Lepp, who farms downstream of the Rivers dam on the Little Saskatchewan River, was among dozens of residents in the Municipalities of Riverdale and Whitehead told to evacuate late last night after the province said they no longer had confidence in the dam.

“The notice only came at midnight, so actually we haven’t hardly slept yet,” Lepp said. “It’s all happened during the night.”

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In a release late July 1, the province pointed to “unprecedented flows,” putting stress on the 60-year-old structure, the result of a string of storms in the last week of June, which dropped well over 200 millimetres of rain.

Some producers, however, have debated those numbers, citing observed rainfall totals close to 12 inches (or 304 mm) from June 28 to July 1.

The province has asked residents to evacuate up to 40 properties in the Municipalities of Riverdale and Whitehead, as well as any livestock in the path of the flood should the dam rupture.

“The municipalities of Riverdale, Whitehead and Cornwallis and the City of Brandon have been notified,” the province said. “Municipal officials are working with the province to ensure residents downstream of the dam are aware of the situation and have destinations in mind if asked to evacuate as a precaution.”

Lepp says his own cattle have moved to higher ground and that, with feeding on higher areas of the pasture, his family hopes to keep those animals out of danger.

“All our lower fences are gone or underwater,” he said. “The river is just doing a huge amount of damage, taking out banks and trees and just plowing a new course and stuff like that. It’s taking out all our fences down there.”

Lepp estimates that about 10 per cent of his forage and 50 per cent of his pastures are currently underwater, even without the possibility of a dam failure.

Ray Redfern, a producer near Rivers and owner of Redfern Farm Services, also said he was told to quickly move his irrigation pumping equipment to higher ground July 1 in case the dam let go.

He and other farmers with pumping systems had already moved equipment out of water earlier in the week.

“That water came up so fast that by the time we went to peek to see how things were doing, we already had our screen systems piled up on top of each other,” he said, also noting damage to the pump intakes and so far unknown damage to the pump system’s motors.

“We’re deprived of using the water because it’s suddenly become a, and I’ll use the word carefully, but a raging torrent compared to the docile stream it’s been for the last 10 years we’ve been there.

Impassible roads have created significant navigation challenges after significant rainfall led to widespread washouts June 28 to July 1. PHOTO: DAN LEPP

The latest hit

The evacuations come after four days of flooded fields, impassible roads and earlier evacuations from communities upstream

On June 30, swelling water on the Little Saskatchewan River caused dozens of residents in Minnedosa to evacuate temporarily and both the Town of Minnedosa and R.M. of Minto-Odanah to declare a state of emergency.

Those regions joined the R.M. of Oakview, which announced its own state of emergency June 29 after the first of the storms to hit the region. The region reported widespread road washouts, flooding and property damage from what Environment and Climate Change Canada later reported was rain-wrapped tornado.

Many municipal roads between Brandon and Minnedosa remained impassible as of July 2, along with closures along Highway 10 north of Brandon, Highway 24 west of Rapid City, Highway 25 within Rivers, and Highway 270 between Rivers and the TransCanada Highway.

Producers have noted the difficulty in navigating the area. Lepp said it has so far been a challenge to find any route to access supplies or services in the nearby communities.

“Everything is pending on whether Rivers dam holds or not because there is just a huge amount of water that’s going to come down and just do a tremendous amount of damage if that ever breaks,” he said. “If it doesn’t break, other than just a tremendous amount of land repairs and fencing and things like that, (there’s) no machinery losses or anything like that as far as we know.”

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