Manitoba’s flood forecasting team was too inexperienced and lacked the necessary resources to deal with the deluge it faced in southern Manitoba in 2011.
That’s one of the conclusions of a 156-page task force report examining the province’s response to the flood, released this morning.
The 2011 Flood Review Task Force, chaired by civil engineer David Farlinger, said the province should consider increasing the salaries paid to flood forecasters and improve their work environment to make forecasting a position to aspire to within the civil service and to "attract qualified forecasters."
Flood outlook worsens
Recent snowfall in Saskatchewan and south of the U.S. border has increased the likelihood of major flooding along the Red River and several other streams in Manitoba.
Steve Ashton, the Manitoba cabinet minister responsible for flood preparation and forecasting, said flooding on the Red River is now expected to be similar to that of the major flood of 2009.
The province is also looking with increasing concern at flooding this spring along the Assiniboine, Qu’Appelle and Souris rivers out West as well as the Pembina River, which feeds into the Red.
“There is some indication from Saskatchewan and North Dakota that the probability of us having major flooding — the kind of scenarios that we outlined in our last flood outlook — have probably increased,” Ashton told reporters Friday while responding to the contents of two major reports on the 2011 flood and its repercussions for some of the province’s largest lakes.
“We’re looking at a greater probability of some of the major flooding that was already identified (coming to pass),” he said.
Ashton said that the province will issue a new flood forecast — based on the latest precipitation data — early next week.
The flood situation in Western Manitoba is not considered as serious — even with unfavourable weather — as it was in 2011. But Ashton said some communities may need “additional diking.”
Overall, the flood outlook is now worse than it was on March 26, when the province issued its last flood report, he said.
“We’re looking at a very late melt. I think the latest information is that we could be into the middle of April before we see any significant thawing,” the minister noted.
That has made flood officials worried about a very large and quick melt later this spring.
The report said that given the scope of the flood and the tools available to the province’s Hydrological Forecasting Centre (HFC), providing timely and reliable forecasts would have posed a challenge to the most experienced forecasters — let alone a team whose experience ranged from six months to three years.
"The task force heard from a number of sources that the inadequacy, or lack, of succession planning within the provincial government was a concern," the report said. "This was particularly evident in the Hydrologic Forecasting Centre (HFC) where relatively inexperienced forecasters were required to deal with a flood event far beyond anything they had ever faced."
The report said the province needs to address the issue for future floods.
Flood forecasters also lacked a dedicated operations centre where they could all meet and spread out their maps, field measurements and other data and work collaboratively without interruptions. In the early days of the flood, forecasters worked within their respective offices because of a lack of such space before transforming a board room for this use.
Another constraint facing staff was a questionable flood forecasting model based on snowmelt, the report said. The model was unable to produce reliable runoff forecasts that took into account heavy rains. "Most of the largest floods in Manitoba are the result of rainfall on top of, or shortly after, the snowmelt event," the report said.
In their attempts to overcome the obstacles facing them, flood forecasters developed rainfall-runoff models "on the fly" for sub-watersheds of the Souris, Assiniboine and Red river basins as well as for a number of other streams.
The report makes it clear that whatever shortcomings there were in the accuracy of the province’s flood forecasting they were not due to a lack of effort from staff. Flood forecasters worked anywhere from 12 to 18 hours a day continuously for about 100 days, it said.
But eventually all of their limitations — from inexperience to lack of resources — "began taking their toll on the accuracy and reliability" of their work.
"The problems encountered during the 2011 flood operations are a clear indication that the current level of resources in the HFC are inadequate for floods of the magnitude ... of the 2011 event," the report said.
It recommended the establishment of a full-time operations centre with dedicated computers, telephones, software and other communication equipment as well as adequate space for laying out visual materials. It also recommended that forecasters have improved professional and technical support to supply them with the data they need.
The task force’s authors said the 2011 Manitoba flood was "of a scope and severity never before experienced, in recorded history, in this province."
The report defends the province’s decision to create an emergency outlet at the Hoop and Holler bend of the Assiniboine River downstream from Portage la Prairie, saying forecast precipitation that didn’t occur would have made the operation necessary. "The strategy to construct the breach was entirely reasonable," the report said.
The government commissioned the task force report — and a second report reviewing the regulation of Lake Manitoba Lake St. Martin — last February.
The Free Press will be live streaming Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton's scheduled news conference at 12:30 responding to the reports.