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First Nations, town prepare for flooding in western Manitoba

The swollen Birdtail Creek floods portions of Birtle Riverside Park on Saturday afternoon.

TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN Enlarge Image

The swollen Birdtail Creek floods portions of Birtle Riverside Park on Saturday afternoon.

WINNIPEG - Crews will undertake a small, controlled breach of a faltering embankment in western Manitoba in hopes of preventing a collapse that could send water rushing to downstream communities.

Manitoba Infrastructure issued a news release late Monday saying the intent of the breach upstream of Birdtail Creek is to safety draw down as much as a metre-and-a-half of water to reduce pressure on the embankment.

However, officials say the risk of the structure crumbling is still high.

Crews are also still trying to pump out water.

Birdtail Creek started backing up late last week because a culvert had frozen solid over the winter.

Pieces of the embankment started falling away on the weekend, allowing water through and prompting precautionary evacuations of some 32 homes in the Town of Birtle, the surrounding rural area and the Waywayseecappo First Nation.

"If we can get (the water) below where it's seeping, that's what I would call a safe level," said Doug McNeil, the province's deputy minister of Infrastructure and Transportation.

The government and local municipalities had already put up sandbags and temporary dikes around the threatened homes, and were hopeful the residences were protected from whatever might come.

"We think they are, but of course until the water gets here we won't know for sure," Ron Bell, spokesman for the Town of Birtle, said from the community 250 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

Further east, about 130 people remained evacuated from the Peguis First Nation after the Fisher River topped its banks over the weekend. Water levels had started receding by Monday, but there was no immediate word on when residents might return.

Manitoba's Emergency Measures minister criticized the federal government for not doing more to protect Peguis, which suffered severe flooding in 2009.

"I think it sends a clear message to the federal government — they are directly responsible in terms of jurisdiction for First Nations — that flood mitigation has to be an important priority for First Nations," Steve Ashton said.

The province and Ottawa have been talking since 2009 about anti-flood measures for Peguis, Ashton said, but so far the only item agreed on was the relocation of some houses. Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt's office was not immediately available for comment.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger toured the flood-hit areas Monday, and said while water levels were generally dropping, the threat was far from over.

"There's still a heck of a lot of water ... and it's raining out."

Manitoba normally sees some sort of flooding every spring, as meltwater comes in from as far away as the Rockies and South Dakota. Cities and towns are protected by dikes, ditches, dams and other structures, while farm fields and rural roads are often briefly submerged.

The province has an array of equipment, including amphibious icebreaking machines and temporary tub dams, designed to keep the water away from buildings and moving through to Lake Winnipeg.

This year has been a light year for flooding. During very severe floods, some towns have to close off roads to the outside world to stay dry.

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