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Souris river: feast or famine

Evaluation of Souris River’s flow data has begun evaluation in earnest, but the sheer number of scenarios promises enough data to drown in, and not everyone agrees on priorities

Lynn R. Kongslie is used to watching his ranch near Towner, North Dakota, go under water, but that doesn’t lessen the sting each time it does. Like many ranchers in the area, Kongslie believes he knows who to blame. Saskatchewan’s three major control structures along the Souris River are sore topics in Towner, Minot and other U.S. communities along the river before it turns back north to Manitoba.

Those communities were flooded in 2011 when heavy summer rain on top of saturated soils from winter snowfall overloaded the Souris River’s flow-management system. Manitoba farms and towns soon joined those flooded communities in North Dakota. The province of Manitoba later estimated the flood cost $1.2 billion in damage, prevention and repair, with North Dakota estimating its cost at US$1.4 billion.

Kongslie says it happened to him and his neighbours again in 2013, and the river’s management both in Saskatchewan and locally in Minot was to blame. Flows were increased beyond what his riverbanks could take, flooding his barns and calving facilities and causing an estimated several hundred thousand dollars in damage.

Why it matters: The International Souris River Study Board has been given an extra year to deliver its findings, which could upend how flows are currently managed. To hear those responsible for hydrological modelling tell it, they’ll need every bit of that time.

The International Souris River Study Board (IRSB) was formed after the 2011 flood. Its research team has put flow management under the microscope but has only recently finished validating its models and begun running scenarios through the software to gauge the effect of different management decisions and recommend changes. However, not everyone agrees on what an ideal outcome might look like, or how to get there. And not everyone believes that the reservoirs are to blame. The flood in 2011 was “off the charts,” representatives from the study board said during an open meeting in June.

Kongslie wants to see more drawdown to make way for spring run-off and accuses the reservoir’s management of keeping back more water than they need.

“Wouldn’t you think that common sense would prevail when we’ve got five feet of wet snow out there? When you’ve got all the snow in the world to fill those dams back up that you wouldn’t release it during the winter? It’s simply common sense and it doesn’t happen.”

However, Boundary Reservoir in Saskatchewan mainly acts as a cooling water supply for a SaskPower generation station and is operated as closely to full as possible in non-flood conditions. The Saskatchewan Water Security Agency can order extra drawdowns in the Rafferty Reservoir to make up for the lack in flood mitigation, IRSB documents say.

Conflicting priorities

While some worry about releasing too much water, others would like to see more. Debbie McMechan, study board public advisory chair and reeve of Two Borders Municipality, says most of her constituents are more worried about low flows and fish kills. The health of the river around Hartney is of significant concern.

The area can become a “very sick ecosystem come July and August,” a Hartney resident told the IRSB during a public meeting in Bottineau, N.D., in June. The resident urged the board to give more consideration to ecosystem health in the revamped policy.

“I think our apportionment is pretty low coming into Manitoba,” McMechan said. “I would like to see that looked at. I hope that is something that the study is going to look at strongly because we do have people who water off the river… people who depend on the river.” Dry conditions in the last two years have increased those concerns.

“Every year, despite the fact that people within the basin all really want it to be a basin-wide solution, the needs are so different in every area, so that’s a challenge,” McMechan said.

Streams of data

U.S. study team co-chair Michael Bart says it will take time for the models to churn through the many data points involved in predicting the river’s behaviour after a management change. A single scenario involves running through 15 to 16 indicators for 22 different sites.

The board has also expanded its mandate past flood control and water quality and into areas such as ecosystem health, cultural impacts, recreational impacts and possible changes to the river due to climate change. Other impacts such as agriculture and erosion will also be evaluated. The board must then weigh which policies that are positive for some indicators but negative for others.

In one case, the team evaluated the impact of minimal releases from Saskatchewan’s reservoirs through the year. The analysis found that those releases would benefit wildlife along the river, but would drop water levels by 30 feet in the Grant Devine reservoir during dry years.

Michael Bart.
photo: Alexis Stockford

“They interconnect,” Bart said. “They’re not separate by themselves. An indicator could affect two or three other indicators, so it’s a connected system.”

The study will start with flood control and water supply, the focus of the current three-decade-old flow management agreement between Canada and the U.S., Bart said. That assessment will form the baseline for when expanded outcomes are added in.

“There’s no perfect solution,” said Al Pietroniro, Bart’s Canadian counterpart. “You’ve got to look at a bunch of different possibilities at the end of the day and then it becomes a value judgment.”

Bart said dam management makes less and less difference the farther from the Saskatchewan reservoirs one goes, and floods have little to do with dam management but are based on events farther downstream.

“I don’t know if we’re going to end up with a different operating plan, none of us do right now,” he said. “But they did a pretty good job 30 years ago and we’ll see whether we can fine-tune it or change it in some manner.”

More time to study

Due to the complexity, the team has been given an extra year to finalize its findings. Its final report is now expected in January 2021.

McMechan welcomed the extension. As part of the upper echelons of the study, she recently previewed some of the initial modelling data. She said the technology will take a lot of guesswork out of any new policy decision, adding that she is pleased with efforts to accommodate the different priorities and needs.

Kongslie is concerned and says he’s still fighting for what he describes as the future of his ranch and his neighbours. New flood-protection structures in Minot are his latest concern. He says they will further increase flooding for ranchers downstream, and he and his neighbours have considered filing an injunction against them.

“What I’m doing here is fighting for the existence of that ranch,” he said. “I don’t want to lose it on my watch. I’m the fourth generation. My son is the fifth. He’s got a son who will be the sixth… I don’t think that we can continue, I just don’t know how we’re going to.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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