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Sleepwalking toward a flood disaster?

The Leader-Post by Dena McMartin 28 March 2013

Is a spring melt disaster unavoidable? You might be forgiven for thinking so, given the lack of preventative action to date.

Two days after the first official day of spring, the Leader-Post reported that Saskatchewan and North Dakota officials were meeting to begin talks about “reducing flooding along the Souris River watershed this spring.”

A bit late, I’d say. Taxpayers deserve responsive and responsible actions from government officials and landowners to deal with potentially severe spring flooding in the province.

Snow accumulation in the Regina area sits at more than 230 per cent of normal, the groundwater table is at capacity after recent wetter-than-average years, and stored water in dams hasn’t been released early enough to make room for the spring melt.

The widespread and costly results of 2011 spring flooding should have taught us a lesson, but there have been no announcements or budget plans to reduce the outcomes of flooding, nor to avoid the disaster in the first place. Where are the new dams and canals or raised grid roads to create flood-resistant berms?

The longer that cold weather delays the spring melt, the faster it will happen when it finally comes. The sun will be higher in the sky and when it warms up, it’ll warm up to stay. We’re not going to experience a slow and sweet farewell to snow. It will hit fast and hard.

While the provincial government drags its heels, actuaries are predicting insurance claims in the thousands. We need more proactive planning and communication from the provincial Water Security Agency – it has our experts.

Why hasn’t the WSA plan included lessons learned from 2011?

Lack of expertise? Not really. Lack of emphasis on mitigation? Yes.

Lack of budget and personnel? Absolutely.

But governments need to recognize that the best way to save money is to spend proactively – to reduce property loss and damage, to protect citizens and their homes and jobs, and to build protection into society.

Manitoba’s approach integrates the science and art of flood protection into the culture: it’s just part of what you do in spring. They’ve invested, built, educated and planned. And, for the most part, they’ve mitigated the impact. Of course, they’re also more vulnerable.

But that doesn’t lessen the value of their example to Saskatchewan; it might mean we can cherry pick the best and most affordable solutions.

While information released by the WSA includes predictions of flooding hot spots and planning for water release from major reservoirs, like Rafferty and Alameda and even Lake Diefenbaker, the plans and preparations come too late. With record snow pack, a late spring, and thick ice still on our lakes and rivers, the predicted localized flooding could become much more widespread and expensive.

We know what a 1-in-10 flood can do. In 2011, it put communities under water, cut the Trans-Canada Highway near Swift Current, destroyed 39 homes in Roche Percée, and caused millions of dollars of damage and additional transportation costs. What have we done in the past 24 months to prepare for another 1-in-10 flood event? Not much.

With more snow and higher groundwater tables than 2011, this year’s potential flooding could be even more catastrophic.

As the weather warms and spring arrives, we all need to be thinking: how many basements will be flooded, how many towns left without road access, and how many livelihoods destroyed this time around?

And how much devastation is necessary to ensure that, next time, we’ll have a plan?

Dena McMartin is an associate professor of environmental systems engineering at the University of Regina.