Construction of a second Lake Manitoba outlet to ease flooding for landowners around the lake could begin in less than two years, Manitoba’s minister of emergency measures said last week.
“If we see things move ahead fairly smoothly, you could see construction as early as 2016,” said Steve Ashton, who is also Manitoba’s minister of infrastructure and transportation. “There might even be some preliminary construction before then, so I just want to stress, we are very much on track right now towards getting this built.”
Last week farmers, cottagers and homeowners from around the lake gathered at the flooded-out farm of Mark Peters to rally against a reported seven-year timeline for the construction of an additional outlet on Lake Manitoba.
“It’s just a matter of the province making the decision, using their resources, using the technical support and the research from previous years and putting it all together and making it happen,” said Tom Teichroeb of the Lake Manitoba Flood Rehabilitation Committee, which organized the rally.
Ashton said that is exactly what the province is doing.
Following the 2011 flood the province immediately began to examine future flood mitigation possibilities for the lake, he said.
“I think there was some misreporting of the seven years,” the minister said. “We’re into this process now and we’re doing everything possible to do it in a manner that is both comprehensive and timely.”
Building a new outlet for Lake Manitoba also means a new outlet must be built for Lake St. Martin, which has been affected by high water in recent years. Members of Lake St. Martin First Nation were displaced by flooding three years ago and have yet to return home.
A memorandum of understanding between the First Nation and the federal and provincial governments was recently signed that would see the entire community relocated as a result.
Dauphin River First Nation has also been affected by flooding and members of both communities blocked the full operation of the existing emergency Lake Manitoba outlet in protest earlier this month.
The minister pointed out that consultations with First Nations is also a legal requirement under the constitution, calling the process a “very significant factor” when it comes to the construction of the outlet channel.
Teichroeb agrees that First Nations must be consulted, but said the province should have begun that process before announcing that two new channels would be built.
“Without a doubt that’s a big issue, these people have been ignored for a long, long time, literally since the Fairford structure came in… so you bet they’re going to have to be compensated and you bet they deserve to be, it’s a big issue,” he said, adding he heard many concerns first hand while serving on the independent Lake Manitoba/Lake St. Martin Regulation Review Committee. That review, in addition to the 2011 Manitoba Flood Review, will serve as the basis for the development of the new outlet channels.
In addition to working with First Nations, Ashton said building the two new outlets may require acquiring land from private owners. He also disputed claims made by Robert Sopuck, MP for Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette that no federal environmental review is necessary.
In an email to Teichroeb, Sopuck stated that changes to the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and the Navigable Waters Protection Act mean regulatory concerns won’t affect the outlets.
“It is inconceivable that any of these revised acts could stand in the way of the construction of a new channel. I would note that these acts were no impediment to the construction of the Lake St. Martin Channel in 2011 and would not be an impediment to any new channel,” Sopuck wrote.
Ashton said he was surprised by Sopuck’s comments.
“I was a bit surprised at the tone here; no one is pointing fingers at anyone, we’re just saying that these are steps that have to be taken as part of the approval,” said the minister, adding that while federal acts have been changed, those changes don’t negate the need to assess the environmental impact of permanently altering the flow of water in the province.
Ashton said there is a difference between an emergency outlet, such as was constructed in 2011, and permanent flood mitigation, which must meet more stringent requirements.
Ashton also noted that the emergency channel continues to be operated on an emergency basis.
“We are somewhat limited in its operation. It is an emergency outlet so we do have to be in an emergency situation — essentially flood stage — to operate it,” he said.
The new outlets from Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin will allow for greater regulation of lake levels at all times, and could begin operating even before being fully completed.
“This will be the legacy of the 2011 flood. We said we would focus on the hardest-hit areas of Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin and we’re living up to that,” said Ashton. “These are permanent outlets that will forever change the flows out of Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin.