BREEZY POINT -- The first sign of spring in Manitoba has arrived in the form of three Amphibex machines cutting Red River ice near the confluence with Netley Creek.
At $1.3 million apiece, the floating steel machines with hydraulic arms have spent the past week cutting into the Red as part of an effort to break up a 25-kilometre stretch of river that extends from Lake Winnipeg to Highway 4.
The intent is to clear a channel for chunks of ice, which are as thick as three-quarters of a metre this winter, to reach the lake and reduce the possibility of back-flows that could raise river levels in communities such as Selkirk and Petersfield.
In 2009, an ice jam on the Red River's lower stretch devastated riverfront areas of the rural municipalities of St. Andrews and St. Clements, resulting in the buyout of 47 homes and cottages. Ice congestion that year also caused the Red to peak in Winnipeg at 22.6 feet above normal winter-ice level, which amounted to the second-highest level in the city since the completion of the Red River Floodway.
The province now has a total of four Amphibexes, with one serving as backup. The steel hulls of each machine have been reinforced, along with the hydraulic strength of their cutting arms, said Steve Topping, executive director of hydrologic forecasting and water management for Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation.
The province has yet to determine the prospects for spring flooding on the Red River in 2013, with forecasters intending to crunch new numbers from the United States before they issue Manitoba's first flood outlook next Wednesday.
The U.S. National Weather Service plans to update its predictions for the Red River today. In January, it predicted a four per cent chance of moderate flooding at Grand Forks before April 30 and a 15 per cent chance of moderate flooding at Fargo during the same period.
As a result, St. Andrews Reeve Don Forfar said he's optimistic there will not be major flooding on the lower Red River, despite the thickness of the ice and a relatively high snowpack.
The greater fear this year, as it was in 2011, is the Assiniboine River basin may experience flooding. Earlier this month, Saskatchewan's Water Security Agency predicted above-normal spring runoff in almost every area of the province that sits inside the Assiniboine River basin, thanks to above-normal snowfall and above-average moisture content within the Saskatchewan snowpack.
Those are only two factors that contribute to potential floods. In Manitoba, soil-moisture levels, which determine the ability of the ground to absorb snowmelt, were much lower during the fall of 2012 than they were during the fall of 2010, which preceded the record Assiniboine River flood, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said.
The depth of frost, the rate of snowmelt and the amount of snow or rain that will fall in the coming weeks and months will also determine whether Manitoba experiences a flood, Topping said.
Amphibexes are deployed in an attempt to reduce the odds of flooding.
First, circular saws and drills cut a grid of six-metre squares partway into the Red River ice. Then, two Amphibexes work in tandem to break up a channel.
After ice-cutting work is completed on the Red River, the Amphibexes will move on to the Icelandic River and Fisher River in the Interlake, the Whitemud River southwest of Lake Manitoba and the Portage Diversion channel, which carries Assiniboine River floodwaters into Lake Manitoba.
2013 FLOOD PREDICTIONS
Manitoba's first flood outlook for 2013 will be revealed on Wednesday, Feb. 27.
On Feb. 12, Saskatchewan's Water Security Agency predicted "well above-normal" or "above-normal" spring runoff for almost all of the upper Assiniboine River drainage basin, the Souris River basin and the Qu'Appelle River basin, based on "above-normal winter precipitation and well above-average water equivalent in the snowpack." The Souris and Qu'Appelle drain into the Assiniboine River in Manitoba.
On Jan. 21, the U.S. National Weather Service's advanced hydrologic prediction service said there was a four per cent chance of moderate flooding along the Red River at Grand Forks and a 15 per cent chance of moderate flooding at Fargo at some point before April 30. The U.S. weather service also pegged the chance of major flooding at two per cent for Grand Forks and eight per cent for Fargo. An update is expected today.