Looking and sounding very much like a nervous first time pro-side debater on the junior high debating team, Manitoba’s premier popped into supper hour tonight to blink and jaw about the hard decisions he’s making these days. Like calling in the military and opening a vein of the Assiniboine to purposely flood at least 250 square kms of farms, towns and everything else in the way. He calls this a controlled breach, necessary to prevent an uncontrolled breach which would be much worse. Really? The premier is spraying us with plenty of absolutes about this but doesn’t sound very convincing. He said he’s so darn sure of this because the decision was unanimous among officials. I hope some of these officials are engineers and hydrologists familiar with the territory and not all backroom party hacks gambling with people’s lives for a few votes and, if they can spin it, saviour status.
The premier’s McGuffin here is he wants to control something so by applying typical political hubris, a well-honed albatross from last century, he separates Nature from everything and picks a river. Bad move. Let’s look at this thing the little man wishes to control.
The Assiniboine River is old and pissed off. It has flowed for at least 10,000 years since the glaciers melted. As the Ice Age ended, the Assiniboine was a major drainway for the meltwater. Five times deeper than it is now with the entire valley, which in places is three miles across, filled to the brim with water, it raged and surged; over the course of a few hundred miles reducing sandstone boulders the size of two-storey houses to fine red sand and depositing it in a massive delta, a tiny fraction of which we now call Spirit Sands. Prone to eating the occasional gazebo for lunch, as above, the mighty Assiniboine is a wild and vengeful river, highly resentful of its damming at Shellmouth and, with its accomplices the Qu’ Appelle, the Little Saskatchewan and the Souris, comes seeking watery justice.
For the engineers and pols to think they have control over this river is dangerously displaced denial, hubris of the highest order and arrogance of the lowest. One misstep and the flow goes from 500 cfs (cubic feet per second) to 10,000 cfs and beyond. At that point there is no turning back, no amount of backhoes and dumptrucks full of stones can stop that, denial dies, the con side of the debate wins and the old river has revenge. Unless he gets cold feets again, the premier says the controlled breach will occur at 6 a.m. Saturday. Just a reminder, Mr. Premier, Nature bats last.
Elsewhere, it is now starting to sink in with Brandonites how long their flood will last. The crest will be another week, peak levels persist for at least three days then the long slow process of water subsiding. Weeks from now the 1350 evacuees could still be displaced; major shopping malls could still be closed. The river is setting the timetable on this one.
Meanwhile the City of Brandon is holding social events for evacuees, offering them babysitting and laundry services, generally making the people they kicked out their at-risk homes feel as comfortable as possible. The caring and compassion of Mayor Shari Decter Hirst is evident in this.
I’m repeating this picture for a reason. The traffic light is on 18th Street. The river is just behind the triple tiered dike and now comes almost to the top of the second tier. There is enormous pressure from the river against the dike. If this dike along 18th wasn’t there, the street, shopping malls, school and residential area west of it would all be under eight feet of water.
The Eighteen Street dike is the first obstacle the Assiniboine encounters as it approaches Brandon from the west. As it flows through the city, the next obstacle, besides the miles of dikes along its banks, is First Street, heavily diked and still closed. First and Eighteen are the bottlenecks that determine the flow and stress of the river as each has just one bridge to allow water to cross. Beyond First, the final obstacle before the river surges free eastward is Highway 110, a hazardous goods and heavy truck bypass from the TCH to Highway 10 that enters the city from the south. This aerial picture of Hwy 110 shows the single lane of heavy truck traffic being piloted between the dikes. Treacherous and closed for a few days earlier this week, Hwy 110 is now open to heavy trucks only. An extra long bridge allows the river to flow under the highway but there have been calls to drain the water through Brandon quicker by letting 110 flood. Since many of the heavy trucks deliver live fodder to the Maple Leaf slaughterhouse, handily located right next to the bypass, it’s unlikely 110 will be closed or sacrificed. Downstream must also be considered. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.
Another report late Saturday afternoon. Have a great weekend. Reid