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A few thoughts on future floods

As the city waits, patiently, for this surprise summer flood to finally go away, it's a good time to take stock of what worked — and what didn't — in this flood fight.

First, the good news: Pretty much everything worked! I think city and provincial authorities did an overall excellent jod in dealing with a flood that no one could have predicted a month ago.

Table of contents

I've been thinking a lot about flooding. This will help me to organize those thoughts and you to navigate them.

It's probably lucky that we had that 2011 flood. There were months to prepare for that one, instead of just days, and we benefited dramatically from having had that infrastructure already built up.

Now, the bad news: One in 300 years? Not so much.

I think we have to gird ourselves for more of these types of floods, more often.

As I traced for a Brandon Sun editorial earlier this month, big summer floods along the Assiniboine may not be common, but they're hardly new. And although we didn't see anything along these lines anytime in the entire 20th century, there are estimates that the Great Flood of 1882 was two full feet higher that even this year's record flooding.

Let's hope we don't have to deal with that for a while. But we shouldn't get complacent with our ability to handle superfloods like this year and 2011. We should be looking at ways to better predict and handle these floods — from both a technical and a social standpoint.

I'm sure dozens of smart people at City Hall and at the Manitoba Legislature will be pondering these issues in the months to come. But here are a few things I thought of:

Eyes in the sky

Data from NASA satellites show that, just south of here, the states of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska have been getting a lot wetter over the past decade.

It seems clear that Manitoba and Saskatchewan are getting wetter, too.

NASA is touting its satellites as future flood-hunters. The ultra-sensitive satellites actually measure tiny changes in Earth's gravity to trace the flow of water. By tracking where the ground is already saturated — and exactly how much — NASA hopes that it can help flood forecasters refine their predictions.

You may remember that Manitoba's flood forecasters were somewhat stymied in their predictions because they hadn't had much experience with summer flooding, and the actual flows didn't match their models.

The data from NASA is freely available online, although it's above my pay grade to fully figure out.

NASA has also launched a new satellite to track precipitation.They've long had one for tropical areas, which helps in hurricane season, but this one will track precipitation across the whole globe. It could help fill in the blanks between weather stations down here on the ground.

Rainfall can be highly variable, with one town getting tons and the next town over getting much less. This new satellite will ensure deluges that miss weather stations are still recorded. Data is set to start being released from it this year.

We didn't need NASA data to tell us that the ground in Westman — and most of the Assiniboine River basin — was saturated, but the NASA data can tell us precisely how much, and where.

And although a satellite floating around in orbit can't do much to help build dikes or throw sandbags, the new satellite can help us measure precipitation more accurately. And hopefully the next flood that comes around will be a little bit less surprising.

Grand Valley

I admit to being skeptical about the new dikes along 18th Street North, bracketing Grand Valley Road. I felt that they were a drastic step backwards from original dike plans that would have saved Grand Valley Road from flooding, rather than letting it go underwater.

Sure, I still feel that way a little. But given how quickly the city was able to fill the gap when floodwaters threatened, I think it's done an admirable job. I'm not sure how much an extensive dike system would have helped to save the road, or if the surging waters would have just had more dike to work with, but I think the current system has worked pretty well.

I wouldn't want to work at the Research Station, mind you. Here's a picture I took from the top of the dike around the time of the first crest:

That is a lot of water. The city has since added large rocks as rip-rap along the wet side of the dike to prevent erosion.

From what I've heard, there were also concerns that the dike could "slide" along the pavement of Grand Valley Road, and bump out into 18th Street, potentially even giving way, so the asphalt was torn up before the dike was laid down to give it more grip. It'll have to be re-paved — not a huge job, but a job — after the water recedes and the dike is removed. 

The city also says that they'll be stockpiling the clay and rocks nearby, for any future dike-building. That's smart.

But it's still lot smaller than the originally-proposed plans, which would have kept Grand Valley Road open during flooding, and would have protected some Research Station fields, too.

First Street North

Those provincial plans also would have protected First Street North, keeping it open. However, when the dike plans were taken over by the city, they ditched those and decided to concentrate on protecting houses, businesses and access through Highway 110.

I'm sure there were tradeoffs, and I'm not going to second-guess those negotiations and decisions here, but now that we've lived through two weeks and counting of First Street North being closed (that's already longer than it was closed in 2011), it's worth taking a look at the good and the bad. 

The bad, of course, has been nasty traffic snarls, no doubt made worse by the ongoing construction that has closed Victoria Avenue, and by the need to close some lanes of 18th Street for dike construction.

But by and large, it's been tolerable, if extremely inconvenient (I wouldn't want to be trying to go back and forth between the two Assiniboine Community College campuses).

I've heard from travellers that they wished there were more signs coming into the city warning them of the closure, particularly for people coming in from the north on Highway 10, which would normally lead them directly to First Street.

We will have to wait and see what condition the road is in when waters recede, but I'm hopeful they will not take too much work to get traffic-worthy again.

If they do prove to have been eroded by the flooding, I fear the province may say they have to put the project out to tender, and First Street North could be closed for months more. I would propose the common-sense solution of just redeploying the workers from Victoria Avenue to First Street repair.

They have the men, the machines and the material less than a mile away, so it should just be a few strokes of a pen to change which road they're working on.

And frankly, although my parents live along that stretch, Victoria Avenue is in okay enough shape that it can be delayed until next year, if that's the only way to re-open First Street this year.

Raise the road

If First Street North has to be rebuilt — and I hope it doesn't — we might want to consider making a wee bit higher.

I don't think it's needed to raise it high enough to act as a dike that's the same height as every other dike in the city. Planners are right when they say there are no homes and business at risk if First Street North floods (thank goodness they didn't proceed with that development along Veterans Way — it was going to be built with a 1-in-100-year flood protection plan).

But low-lying levels of First Street could be raised a couple of feet, which would keep it open during most floods. This would be easy

Note that you would only have to build up the southbound lanes, since they would act to protect the northbound lanes (note that this would also protect the median trees).

During a moderate flood, two-way traffic could just be rerouted into the northbound lanes temporarily. In fact, the bridge could be redesigned with this eventuality in mind.

Building up the road bed is also preferable to building any dkies along the river. I know it was necessary, but I miss the view along Kirkcaldy Drive.

Let's be an Optimist

Man, I would hate to be a soccer enthusiast in this city.

Even the original dike plans, which protected First Street North, left the soccer fields to flood. My understanding is that they don't want to funnel the entire river under the First Street bridge, in case it rises too high for the railway on the other side. Spreading it out also helps weaken the power of the water (think of putting your thumb over a hose) and reduces erosion.

But the soccer park doesn't need to flood every year! My mom has taken to calling it the Optimist Canoe Park.

Surely a small dike built alongside the river could protect it from, say, 1-in-100-year floods. It might still get flooded out during massive events like this year or 2011, but for moderate flooding it would be safe. 

Currently, it seems to flood every spring, and it should be possible to give it some moderate protection without endangering the railway or anything else.

First Street bridge

The province has already said that the First Street bridge is in dire shape and needs immediate work.

Pre-flood, what was expected was a planning year this year, then work to be done next year and in 2016. I'm not sure what the flood will do to those plans — there are dozens of other roads and bridges in Westman that suddenly need immediate attention, too.

But let's say it goes ahead (PS. I think it should be renamed "Baragar Bridge" in honour of one Dr. Baragar).

Well, given that there might have to be road re-building, the connection between First Street north and the bridge should be carefully assessed.

As a pedestrian or cyclist, it's terrible to walk across on a thin strip of crumbling concrete, only to be left stranded on the side of a roadway. I have detailed thoughts on what the First Street bridge should eventually look like, but suffice it to say that pedestrian connections to Dinsdale Park and the soccer park should be given top consideration.

What does this have to do with flooding? Well, I argued in 2011 that the city did people a disservice when they shooed them away from the bridge. It was closed, and it was a natural place from which to watch the spectacle of the flood. 

I'm glad to see that this year, they've taken a softer line. People have been allowed on the bridge, and it's been a popular place for crowds to gather.

Bridge enhancements that include wider, protected pedestrian walkways and bump-out balconies like on the Thompson Bridge should make it even more natural a lookout spot. 

Lookie-loos

Speaking of flood watching, I understand the risk from the floodwaters, but it's human nature to want to go and check it out; authorities should recognize that and work with it as best they can.

Have you noticed that all of the "stay away" requests come from people who have already had their fill of getting up close and seeing it themselves?

The city warns people to stay away from the "extremely dangerous" waters, but then the mayor tweets out close-up pictures.

The police threaten gawkers with $113 trespassing fines or charges of obstructing a police officer if you get too close, but then tweet out bike-cop selfies from inches away.

I mean, come on. How can citizens take those warnings seriously if the authorities don't?

The fact is, the floodwaters ARE risky and can be unpredictable. But they're not extremely dangerous everywhere all the time. It's not like a burning apartment building, about to collapse, where there is immediate and dire peril.

In fact, the city was warning about "extremely dangerous" river levels when they were 10 feet lower than they were now. There is a real risk of crying wolf in these situations.

Work with people, not against them, recognize that they are curious — and that so are you — and give people a safe or safer option.

Keeping the bridge open to pedestrians was a good first step. Adding wide sidewalks would be another.

Something to see here

Another thing I'd like to see done around the First Street bridge is some type of permanent flood marker. There is, underneath the pedestrian bridge, a series of coloured plates marking the height or previous floods. I don't know if they got around to installing a new one after 2011, but they should.

Since the pedestrian bridge has been closed since the 2011 floods, however, I expect it'll be years before anyone uses it now.

So maybe something more visible should be erected to mark flood heights.

I'm thinking of a large concrete or metal post that rises from near the Assiniboine River banks in Dinsdale park, visible from the First Street bridge. Marked on the post would be the average height of the river, as well as clear indications of past floods.

People already take endless photos of the huts and lampposts that are covered by water; this would be like this, but specifically intended to be flooded out.

In my wildest imaginations, I'd like to see more than a simple post, actually. I could imagine a cool sculpture that changes silhouette based on how much of it is covered by the water.

Big funnels could point upstream, and rushing floodwaters could — if they were high enough — cause water to spout up and out the top or sides. It could be interactive in that way, responding to the river.

It should be colourful and attractive even on non flood years. It should be something to see, take to your picture with, to draw attention.

Level up

And, a sculpture like that might serve another purpose as well. The practice of measuring flood heights in feet above sea level may have some purpose at a bureaucratic level, but it is terrible for public relations.

It's long past time to move towards metric measurements, for example.

But not just that — Winnipeg floods are measured in "feet James" and Brandon needs a measurement like that, something that is more human scale, rather than sea level scale.

Frankly, a river that floods from 1,170 feet to 1,180 feet doesn't sound like it's flooded much at all. Thre reality is worse. The river is normally about 10 feet deep, it flooded this year to 23 feet deep.

Brandon should, for public purposes, decide on a "summer average" level of the river, and set that at zero. I'd like to see that in metric measurements. Then they could educate the public that the river overflows its banks when it rises a metre, say. That would make the current river about four metres higher than normal, and about three metres over its banks. 

If, behind the scenes, emergency planners and scientists want to keep using feet above sea level, they're perfectly able to do that, and should do so. But it's not the best way to tell the general public about flood levels, and it should be changed.

Conclusion

These, like many of my brilliant ideas, come with no budget attached. I'm not an engineer, just a passionate thinker about this city.

But it seems to me that most of them could be fairly affordable add-ons to work that we already have to do. It's just a matter of deciding to do it now, when we have the opportunity, rather than trying to add it later, when it would be tougher and more expensive.

Please tweet me @Gramiq or email me ghamilton@brandonsun.com or comment below. I'm curious what other people think about how Brandon can best move forward into a future that seems like it will have more flooding, more often.

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Good column Grant! Excellent points about the "dangerous" warnings and needless selfies.

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