01/05/2012 11:38 EST | Updated 03/06/2012 05:12 EST

Forecasters say Mother Nature set to give flood-weary Manitoba a spring break

WINNIPEG - Mother Nature appears poised to give water-weary Manitoba a breather this spring after one of the worst and longest floods in the province's history last year.

As Manitoba neared record-high temperatures of 7 C Thursday, forecasters said the unseasonably warm winter, coupled with very little precipitation, means things look good for anxious flood watchers.

"It's a different world than this time last year," said Dave Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada. "You had the perfect storm for giving you the flood of all time."

Last January, Phillips said, Manitoba had three times the amount of snow it has now and the soil was completely saturated. When all that snow melted, it had nowhere to go but into swollen waterways.

But that was followed by a hot summer with very little rain, which gave the soil a chance to dry out and moisture to evaporate, Phillips said. That trend has carried into the winter. So far, he said, Manitoba has only had five days where temperatures dipped below -20 C compared with the more-usual 22 days.

Anything can happen between now and the spring melt, but it's looking like flood fighters will get a break, Phillips said.

"One doesn't want to jinx it by suggesting that this is going to be a piece of cake this year compared to last year. The truth is, you don't know what's around the horizon."

Last spring's flood was one of the worst on record. Well into the summer, the province struggled to contain the swollen Assiniboine River by funnelling water away. That pushed water levels up on Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg, which cut off roads and damaged homes and cottages.

More than 2,000 people forced from their homes still haven't been able to return.

Flooding also left its mark on provincial coffers. Officials are predicting close to a $1-billion deficit this year due in part to $800 million in flood costs.

Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton said officials were building up dikes along the Assiniboine last year in anticipation of a hefty spring flood. This year, that hasn't been necessary.

The warm weather and lack of rain not only has forecasters feeling somewhat optimistic. Ashton said Mother Nature is also helping the province recover from last year's event. Lake levels are dropping much faster than anticipated and frazzle ice which was expected to make matters worse along the shores of Lake St. Martin hasn't formed, he said.

"It's been win-win."

But Ashton has been in the job long enough to know it's dangerous to get complacent. In 1997, reports as late as March predicted a low flood risk. With one massive storm in April, the province found itself facing the so-called "flood of the century."

"We have to constantly be on alert."

Officials in Saskatchewan are also cautiously optimistic. Dale Hjertaas with the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority said there is little snow which means less spring runoff. Like Manitoba, the ground is also much dryer this winter so more water can be absorbed.

"We do know that we could get three major storm fronts run through in the month of February and suddenly we would have a different picture so there is an element of uncertainty," he said. "But from the way it looks right now, it certainly looks like a much lower flood risk."

Ronald Stewart, head of the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba, said the dry weather is thanks to a slow-moving high-pressure system which caused record droughts in Texas this summer. The system has been pushing north and has kept precipitation low, he said.

Steward warned, however, that the gradual global warming trend doesn't mean Manitoba won't be hit with massive flooding in the years to come.

"As things warm up, you have a tendency towards Mother Nature moving toward extremes on both sides," Stewart said. "We'll get some catastrophic rain event at some point. There is no question."