Planes from American air bases are flying over Canadian airspace on what’s being called the first-ever patrols of their type.
The planes — Cessna 182s operated by the Civil Air Patrol — take off and land in the United States, but are surveying water levels in Canada, as authorities assess flooding potentials over the Souris River basin.
So far, the aerial patrols have all been into southeastern Saskatchewan, but it’s expected they’ll eventually fly over Manitoba as well. Crews of three in each plane are taking photos of water levels before they hit North Dakota.
"We’re going up to the dams around Weyburn — Oxbow Dam, Rafferty Dam, Alameda Dam," said Col. Bill Kay, commander of the North Dakota Wing of the Civil Air Patrol.
"We’re looking at what the water’s doing, coming down the Souris. We’re taking imagery of how much water’s behind the dams … that affects the City of Minot and Ward County."
Kay took county officials into the air last Friday, and returned to the skies on a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Bismark, N.D., over Saskatchewan on Tuesday. He, like all members of the Civil Air Patrol, is a volunteer, although the planes are U.S.-government owned.
Minot was hard-hit by 2011 flooding, and Kay says this type of aerial flood imagery might have been helpful that year.
"We would have liked to get up there," Kay said.
Despite fears earlier in the spring that heavy snowpack could cause serious flooding again this year, Kay says the flights are showing there might not be as much water behind the dams as they feared.
"It’s looking pretty good," he said.
After last Friday’s initial flight, heavy rains in North Dakota grounded CAP aircrews over the past few days, but they returned to the skies over the Souris River on Wednesday to collect new imagery.
"Now that we’ve got … permission to fly across the border, we can launch when the weather permits," Kay said. "That new imagery will give us a better idea of what we’ll be dealing with in coming days."
Since the CAP is an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, the flights had to be approved at the highest levels, which took some time. They were requested by the state’s adjutant general, Maj.-Gen. David Sprynczynatyk.
"We greatly appreciate the (decision) to conduct incident awareness and assessment flights into Canada," Sprynczynatyk said. "This is a very distinctive mission, and based on years of flood experience, uniquely suited for our pilots."
Imagery will be shared with Saskatchewan, as well as with the Manitoba Emergency Measures Organization.
Now that they have permission, crossing the border hasn’t been an issue. "There’s no real co-ordination for flying," he said, "as long as we don’t land."
Snow melt and runoff in Saskatchewan flow down the 700-km-long Souris River into North Dakota, where it becomes the Mouse River. It reaches its southern point at the town of Velva, and then flows back north through the central part of the state into Manitoba, where it is again known as the Souris River. It eventually empties into the Assiniboine River near Treesbank, about 40 km southeast of Brandon.
The surveillance flights began last Friday and could continue for the next two weeks.
Meanwhile, the Manitoba government on Thursday issued a flood watch for low-lying land adjacent to the Souris River. A flood warning was also issueds for low-lying portions of the Assiniboine between St. Lazare and Grand Valley.
In Brandon, river levels at the First Street Bridge were measured at 1,172.15 feet above sea level — technically still at flood stage, but several inches below its peak this year. The Assiniboine crested in Brandon on Tuesday.