Southern Manitoba braces for flooding

Red River set to overflow banks | Heavy snowfall in March changes flood risk for southern areas from mild to major

The Red River will likely flood southern Manitoba again this spring, but John Forrester isn’t obsessing over when it will arrive or how many acres of his land will be under water.

Forrester, who farms near Letellier, only a few kilometres from the river, is taking a pragmatic approach that is best described as: whatever happens, happens.

“It’s farming 101, you have no control over it,” said Forrester, who operates a grain farm with his cousin Ian Forrester 15 km from the U.S. border.

Landowners such as Forrester in the Red River Valley south of Winnipeg are pretty much guaranteed to see water on their cropland this spring because forecasters are now predicting moderate to major flooding of primary waterways in the province.

Heavier than usual snowfall in March in Manitoba, North Dakota and Saskatchewan has increased the risk of spring flooding, forecasters announced at a provincial flood update in late March. However, the damage to property and farmland should be moderate compared to 2011, provincial officials added.

“We’re trending towards a 2009 flood scenario, not a 2011 flood scenario,” infrastructure, transportation and emergency services minister Steve Ashton said during the flood briefing.

“The 2009 flood scenario saw significant flooding in the Red River Valley and the Interlake … but it certainly wasn’t of the range of 2011.”

To distinguish between the two floods, Ashton said the 2011 event resulted in $1.2 billion in disaster financial assistance payments while the 2009 flood cost $60 million.

Provincial forecasters predicted mild to moderate flooding across Manitoba in February, but cold weather and excessive snowfall in March propelled the flood risk into the moderate to major range.

The conditions aren’t comparable to 2011 when record water levels overwhelmed the Assiniboine River, the Souris River and Lake Manitoba over the spring and well into the summer, said Philip Mutulu, Manitoba’s chief flood forecaster.

“The current forecast suggests that Manitobans will not likely see the widespread and prolonged river flooding and high lake levels that unfolded in 2011.”

Exceptionally cold temperatures in March froze the soil to greater depths than normal, which exacerbated the flooding risk, Mutulu said.

“Across southern Manitoba, soil is frozen to a depth of 50 cm to more than 100 cm.”

Forrester’s soil remains hard and his fields are still covered with snow, but he said he has witnessed enough spring floods to understand there is no reason to panic.

“We’ve always planted a crop,” he said, even in 1997, the year of Manitoba’s flood of the century.

The cropland near the river will likely be inundated with water, but there is virtually no risk to Forrester’s house and other properties in the Red River Valley. The federal, provincial and municipal governments spent millions on earth-moving and other prevention measures following the 1997 flood. Homes and farm buildings are now perched on mounds above the flood plain, and ring dikes surround communities in the region.

“Property wise, we really don’t even think about it anymore,” Forrester said.

The issue now is the timing of the melt. If water is still on the land in the middle of May, it could unleash a scramble to buy seed for shorter season crops.

In western Manitoba, farmers are talking about flooding and the delayed spring melt, but no one is pulling alarm bells just yet, said Lionel Kaskiw, Manitoba Agriculture’s crop production adviser in Souris.

Farmland around Souris and in other parts of Manitoba was relatively dry last fall, which Kaskiw said should mitigate some of the runoff from this year’s melt.

  • There was more snow on the ground March 31 than there was March 1 at multiple locations in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
  • There were 38 centimetres of snow on the ground in Brandon March 1 and 67 cm March 31. More than 48 cm of snow fell on Brandon in March. The normal amount for the month is 18 cm.
  • Estevan had 14 cm of snow March 1 and 24 cm March 31. Estevan received 57 cm of snow in the month, triple the normal amount.
  • Winnipeg had 28 cm of snow March 1 and 41 cm March 31. The mean temperature (average of daily high and low) in Winnipeg this March was -10.6 C. The normal is -6.1 C.

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