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Province seeks to reopen channel to curb flooding

The Selinger government will reopen an emergency channel to lower a rising Lake Manitoba and avoid a repeat of the disastrous 2011 flood.

Steve Ashton, minister responsible for the Emergency Measures Organization, said the province will apply today to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to reopen the Lake St. Martin emergency channel, which was built and first used in the fall of 2011.

"We are going to be asking for expedited approval," Ashton said Tuesday. "The goal here is to get it operating within the next few weeks."

He said heavy machinery has already been barged to the channel's inlet to reopen it and allow water to flow towards Lake Winnipeg.

Ashton said heavy rains over the past month in western Manitoba have contributed to higher than normal lake levels throughout the province and extending to Lake of the Woods in Ontario.

Both Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin are near flood stage and Lake Winnipeg is slightly above its preferred operating range of 715 feet above sea level.

The province is expected to issue a weather alert today warning of potential damage caused by high winds and waves on Lake Winnipeg.

"We're into significant impacts across the watershed," Ashton said. "The weather is starting to be fairly unstable, I think is the best way in describing it. We're going to be clearly on a fairly significant alert throughout the summer for rain events and wind events on the lakes."

Residents and cottagers on Lake Manitoba have appealed to the province to use the Lake St. Martin emergency channel again to allow more water to flow from the adjacent Lake Manitoba.

They say that would give them and their properties more breathing room in the event a windstorm whips up big waves on the lake. A windstorm in 2011 devastated many areas of the lake, destroying cottages and uprooting trees.

"We don't want to sound like we are crying wolf, but if nothing is done the water is going to keep coming up," Lake Manitoba resident Jack King said.

The province said high inflows from the Waterhen and Whitemud rivers are partly behind Lake Manitoba's rising level. Both are swollen with rain runoff. The flow out of the lake is at the Fairford River Water Control Structure where it flows into Lake St. Martin.

Portage la Prairie PC MLA Ian Wishart said the capacity of Fairford can barely handle the inflows of the Waterhen and Whitemud, never mind the water being added to the lake from the Assiniboine River through the Portage Diversion.

"The flows out are pretty static," Wishart said. "The diversion just keeps adding more and more."

About half as much water is flowing through the diversion this week from two weeks ago, but Wishart said it still causes people on the lake anxiety. The lake's level was measured at 813.36 feet above sea level Monday, just shy of flood stage at 814 feet.

He said the province has been too slow to reopen the emergency channel.

The 6.5-kilometre channel was built in 60 days in the fall of 2011 to lower the levels on the two lakes. Its construction involved barging heaving equipment into a remote area and moving 1.4 million cubic metres of earth. It opened Nov. 22, 2011, sending flood water towards Lake Winnipeg.

Wishart said if the flow on the Assiniboine River continues to drop, the province won't need to rely on the Portage Diversion for excess water.

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