Liberal leader calls for better water management policies
- Published on Wednesday, October 17, 2012
By: Kate Jackman-Atkinson
Earlier this month, Manitoba Liberal party leader Dr. Jon Gerrard released his report on the 2011 Manitoba flood. The report included 65 recommendations compiled after visiting over 21 communities and holding five flood forums.
Last week, Gerrard stopped by the Banner office in Neepawa to talk about the report and changes he thinks should be made to prevent future disasters of this magnitude. He noted, “The flood didn’t have to be as bad.”
Gerrard noted that one of the major factors contributing to the intense flooding was provincial government policies towards water management over the last four decades. These policies have focused almost exclusively on drainage resulting in over 30 per cent more water flowing off the land. All of this extra water flowing off the land is something Gerrard said, “contributed to the size of the flood last year”.
Alternative water management policies that focus on water retention can reduce the peak flow during times of flood. Gerrard found that along the South Tobacco Creek, located near Miami, Man., 27 small dams reduce peak run-off by 25 per cent. Being able to hold this water back has reduced the amount of flooded farmland by 75 per cent. He noted, “It’s [the last] 25 per cent that does the most damage.”
The other necessary change that would have reduced the damage from the flood is the addition of an outlet from Lake Manitoba to handle the increased inflow from the Portage Diversion. Gerrard said that in the mid ‘60s, when the Portage Diversion was being designed, outflow from the lake was to be increased to address the additional volume of water being diverted to Lake Manitoba. This hasn’t happened yet, despite the diversion being opened over 40 years ago.
Gerrard compared the lake to a bathtub, when it starts overflowing, you manage the inflows and outflows, you don’t start raising the edges of the tub. He said that an outlet from Lake Manitoba would allow people to plan as they go about rebuilding since lake levels could be stabilized. Since this isn’t possible, residents are being told by the government to rebuild at even higher levels.
While these two factors would have likely greatly reduced the damage caused by last year’s flood, the second part of the report focuses on how the province handled the flood and those effected by it. Gerrard noted, “The immediate handling of the flood was not done too badly,” but went on to say, “In all my almost 20 years in politics, I have never before seen such a chaotically delivered effort as the 2011 flood recovery programs.” He noted that the programs were both poorly put together and badly managed.
Today, over 2,000 people are still out of their homes over a year after the flood. When it comes to flood recovery, Gerrard said, “The number one goal has to be to get people into their homes quickly.” The flood evacuees are, for the most part, being put up in Winnipeg hotels, far from their home communities. He noted that these people are facing health problems including depression, suicide and stress related health problems. Additionally, school age children are having difficulty registering to attend school since school divisions won’t accept a hotel address as a student’s home address.
Gerrard also questioned how the province has been dealing with flood related health issues like debris, E. coli in the water and mold. He said, “Mold is a big issue, we heard again and again that when assessments were done, the mold problem was underplayed or discredited.”
Gerrard said that following the 1997 flood, he raised issues about the province’s water management plan as well as the need for “one window” delivery of recovery programs. It was clear from the experiences of those impacted by the flood that such changes in program delivery haven’t been implemented.
Efforts by flood victims hoping to move forward are being hampered by unfair compensation. Gerrard said that people aren’t getting fair compensation when they are given lowballed assessments. The wait for fair compensation is making it hard for people to get underway rebuilding what was destroyed in the flood.
Changing water management policies to reward landowners for water retention and building new drainage channels are expensive, but so too was fighting the flood. The provincial government spent $1 billion fighting the flood and flooding cost farmers and businesses about $1 billion in lost income. Given these price tags, Gerrard said, “Water retention projects pay for themselves.”