Red River Flood Threat Looms Again

Last week Melvin Edel was looking out the kitchen window at machinery surrounded by four-foot snowbanks and hay bales frozen to the ground.

But in a month or so, his farm south of Morris will be under several feet of water, and all he can do is wait.

Manitoba Water Stewardship last week predicted a 2009-level flood along the Red River this spring. That was the year all of Edel’s 3,600 acres were submerged by water with depths ranging from two to 12 feet.

Knowing what’s coming and being helpless to stop it is pretty stressful, admits Edel.

“You go to bed and you really can’t sleep at night. You’re always worried about the things you have to do,” he said.

Water Stewardship’s March 25 spring flood outlook predicted a Red River flood slightly higher than 2009, given average weather conditions. If the weather is unfavourable, water levels could approach those reached in 1997, the worst along the Red River since 1900. The 2009 flood was the second worst.

In 1997, the swollen Red produced an inland sea up to 12 miles wide covering nearly 1,000 square km of land at its peak.

All eyes are on the river to see what the extent of the flooding will be this time.

“There is going to be flooding. The question is, how much?” Steve Ashton, the minister responsible for emergency services, told a news conference last week.

LATER MELT THIS YEAR

A slow spring melt contributes to the uncertainty. Water Stewardship’s flood forecast was little changed from an earlier one in February because of the delayed thaw. The Red River flood crest is now expected to reach Winnipeg in late April.

That’s in sharp contrast to the 2009 flood. Ashton noted ice jams were already clogging the river north of Winnipeg on March 25. The flood crested in the city on April 16.

Edel said his farm was “cut off fast” in 2009, leaving his cattle isolated on another farm a mile away. The only way to reach them was by boat. Getting to town required a six-mile boat trip across the fields to dock at the Morris ring dike.

Weather permitting, that is. Sometimes when the wind was high and the waves choppy, Edel was marooned on his farm for a week.

Counting backwards, Edel makes this the 14th flood on the family farm between Morris and St. Jean where he grew up. His first flood memory was as an eight-year-old kid in 1948.

Why does he stay? The question irritates him.

“At 69 years old, what am I going to do? Pack up and leave? You can’t. We’ve been farming here all our lives,” he said.

“If somebody had told me this 20 years ago, I would have moved then. But not now.”

But, being a Red River Valley farmer, Edel is stoic.

“It’s stressful but we’ll try and pull through. We’ve done it till now and we’ll keep on going.”

Evacuating residents is unlikely, although Ashton said emergency evacuation plans are in place if needed.

A massive federal-provincial infrastructure project after the 1997 flood saw farm and residential buildings in the Red River flood zone either raised on earthen pads or encircled by built-up dikes.

The great majority of properties are protected to a height of two feet above the 1997 crest, said Herm Martens, former reeve of the Rural Municipality of Morris.

“Most everybody should be OK,” said Martens, who often sees two-thirds of his own 3,000-acre farm covered by flood water in spring.

But picking up after the flood waters subside is “more than an inconvenience,” said Chris Hamblin, whose son farms the 3,200 acres his parents own.

Hamblin said the land has to be cleared of debris which can include entire trees. Some fields are severely eroded and have to be rebuilt before they can be seeded. And there’s always the risk of not being able to plant a crop in time because the soil is too wet.

Edel said he has never lost a complete crop after a flood. Even in 2009 he managed to wrestle seed into the muddy ground and got an “OK” result in fall.

But when you’re forced to seed in June, everything goes down: yields, grade and so on, he said. [email protected]

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Thereisgoingtobe flooding.Thequestion is,howmuch?”

– STEVE ASHTON

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