04/05/2013 04:22 EDT | Updated 06/05/2013 05:12 EDT

Manitoba should improve flood forecasting: report

The Manitoba government needs to improve flood forecasting and protection for First Nations, states a long-awaited report on how province handled the 2011 flood.

Generally, the government did a good job of responding to the disastrous flood, which is still being paid off and has reached a tab of $1.2-billion so far.

The government struck an independent task force more than a year ago to take a critical look at the province's flood forecasting, preparedness, response, public communications and operation of flood control structures.

The report was released at 11 a.m. Friday.

Through much of the spring in 2011, Lake Manitoba was being fed by floodwaters from the bloated Assiniboine River. The water from the river was channeled north via the Portage Diversion, a 29-kilometre channel that has its inlet near Portage la Prairie.

As a result, the lake level was pushed to a record heights that spilled into cottages, businesses and across farms in nearby communities.

Many flood victims have launched a $260-million lawsuit against the province, alleging it deliberately flooded the lake to protect the water from reaching Winnipeg.

'No choice' in forced flooding of lakes

The report says the province had no choice but to force the flooding of Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin. High water levels on the Assinibione river meant that the province had to choose between flooding it, or flooding the lakes, the report states.

The province chose the latter because it would have meant the least damage. An uncontrolled break of the dikes along the Assiniboine would have been catastrophic and unpredictable, officials said at the time of the flood.

Such a break could have spread water across more than 500 square kilometres of land.

Still, some 7,100 people — most of them aboriginal — were forced from their homes due to the inundation of redirected water into Lake Manitoba. About 2,000 aboriginal people have still been able to return.

The report also says the province should urge the federal government, which has primary responsibility for First Nations, to develop an emergency management plan for flooding on reserves.

In all, the report makes 126 recommendations, including that the government should look at more water storage, such as dams, along the Assiniboine River.

Some others include:

- Providing 24-hour public service TV and radio to keep the public better informed with the latest information.

- More and better trained emergency management staff

- More training and inclusion for municipal officials and First Nations leaders.

- A dedicated full-time operations centre instead of a makeshift boardroom used by forecasters in 2011.

- Hiring four dedicated forecasters with a fully-functioning data acquisition system to replace the patchwork quilt of internet sites used in 2011 to gather information.

- Upgrades to the Portage Diversion and an additional channel to drain Lake Manitoba.

- Better coordination with officials in Saskatchewan.

- Levels on Lake Manitoba be lowered for five years by a half-foot, from 810.5 - 812.5 feet above sea level to 810 - 812 feet.

- Lakeside properties be built higher.

Manitoba suffers some level of flooding every spring as meltwater flows in from as far away as the Rocky Mountains. In 2011, there was a perfect storm of heavy snow in winter, heavy rains in spring and saturated ground unable to absorb any runoff.

The province has dikes, dams and channels to keep water moving around communities and into lakes, but that can mean choosing to raise lake levels near cottages to spare Winnipeg and other larger communities.

Outdated info

The task force report says the province started preparations well ahead of time and officials worked around the clock to deal with one of the biggest floods in Manitoba's history.

The report also praises the government for breaching the Hoop and Holler dike and expanding a the Portage flood diversion to ease pressure on the Assiniboine River.

But the review says inexperienced flood forecasters struggled with outdated models and computers as they tried to predict how much water was building up in rivers and lakes.

"The flood forecasting model being used … is a snowmelt model and is unable to produce reliable runoff forecasts for rainfall events," states the report.

"Contrary to traditional understanding, most of the largest floods in Manitoba are the result of rainfall on top of, or shortly after, the snowmelt event."

Perfect storm of conditions

Problems started when severe rainstorms upstream in Saskatchewan and the United States caused the Assiniboine River to swell.

Forecasters were caught off-guard and plans had to be rushed to build up dikes in Brandon and other communities. Residents in low-lying areas of Brandon, the province's second-largest city, were given hours to flee.

The government should explore other forecasting models, the report suggests, and also look at boosting equipment and staff levels in forecasting and emergency management.

"The lack of a data management system for handling large volumes of hydroclimatic — rainfall — data created an immense amount of work for the staff. To gather the data, [forecast centre] staff had to visit several internet climate websites, access the data one station at a time, and finally copy and paste data from each website into Excel spreadsheets."

The report said the magnitude of the flood would have been a challenge to any forecaster, "let alone a forecast team whose experience ranged from six months to three years."

The 2011 flood followed the retirement of long-time chief forecaster Alf Warkentin.

Municipalities struggling

Many municipalities are still struggling in the aftermath of the 2011 flood.

Earl Zotter, reeve of St. Laurent, said his municipality suffered the greatest loss. So much property was destroyed that the tax base has gone down and the municipality is now deep in deficit and can't offer basic services.

The RM has even exhausted it's reserve fund, leaving it unable to even collect garbage last year. Residents had to haul their own trash to the landfill.

“We're unable at this point to do anything as menial and as small as cleaning out ditches to let the water go from the overland flooding. We just don't have the money," Zotter said, noting the RM's deficit is a half-million dollars.

He has asked the province for bridge financing but has not heard anything yet. The only money they can get from the province at this point is if there is another emergency.

"We have to wait until an actual event happens [and] it's going to cost us a lot more to do this work during a flood event than it would to do it pre-emptively," Zotter said.

"We could be in a worse position here in the next month."