For more than 130 years, the vein of the Assiniboine River that flows through our city has been the heart of our community.
The Assiniboine is one of those features that makes Brandon unique in the western Prairie landscape. As a provincial water quality study from 2002 outlined, we use the river for recreational activities such as boating, canoeing, water skiing and swimming.
It’s a great feature for recreational fishing as it hosts about 40 species of fish, and its shoreline supports numerous plant and animal species. Water drawn from the river is a source of water irrigation for surrounding cropland and for food processing industries such as Maple Leaf. It’s also Brandon’s primary source of drinking water.
In short, it has been an essential part of this city for as long as Brandon has existed.
But two historic floods that have occurred within the last four years are forcing us to question our relationship to the river and how we develop this precious resource.
Two weeks ago we outlined what we believed were the five election priorities that Brandon’s municipal candidates should be talking about. Of the five, Brandon’s relationship with the river is one that should be a top-of-mind issue.
And it is, if we can gauge anything by the many river-related issues that came out of the City of Brandon’s first public workshop on its Greenspace Master Plan earlier this month.
Persistent flooding on the Assiniboine has caused havoc for the city-owned golf course, which finally reopened all its greens this summer only to have them back under water within a week. Floodwaters have left the Optimist Park soccer fields out of commission. The once-beautiful Eleanor Kidd Park and its photogenic gardens have been left unusable as the city attempts to build up dikes in the area, and bike and walking trails in the region remain closed to the public.
The riverbank is crumbling and is gradually eroding its way ever closer to the Riverbank Discovery Centre. Thousands of dollars in grant money that were spent on new trees to shore up the riverbank have been washed away this summer.
And when the river floods its banks to the extreme flows that we have been witness to in 2011 and 2014, the city, province and ultimately the federal government are forced to shoulder the costs of keeping residents and businesses safe.
Will we continue to have similar levels of flooding on a more regular basis, as more and more water flows down the flood plain? Or are we in for another period of extended drought where exceedingly high flows along the river in spring and summer become a distant memory?
Unfortunately, no one can predict the future — but we can plan for it. And unless we are prepared to destroy everything that has been built in the flood plain — which is highly unlikely — we will need to decide a new course of action. It’s not going to be enough to simply dike the riverbank and live with the consequences every time a one-in-300-year flood rears its watery head.
As you can read in today’s Sun, a push by then-mayor Rick Borotsik in the early 1990s to redevelop the banks of the Assiniboine River for recreational use prompted the creation of the Assiniboine River Corridor Master Plan in 1995. This was a policy document that enjoyed extensive public input before it was finalized.
The project, as it was envisioned, was meant to “accentuate the natural beauty of the valley, provide greater recreational facilities and attract tourism and cultural activities,” according to a Sun report after the master plan was made public. This was to be our version of The Forks in Winnipeg, and draw new tourism dollars to our community, while allowing residents to enjoy the riverbank.
The master plan, which was supposed to unfold over a 20-year period and cost an estimated $23.4 million, had its detractors on council and in the public. But it was also the most progressive project ever undertaken in this city.
Though we have achieved parts of it — some of the trails, one of the four planned pedestrian bridges, the botanical garden at Eleanor Kidd,and the Riverbank Discovery Centre — it has mostly been left unfinished. And much of what was built along the river corridor — softball diamonds, tennis courts and rugby fields — was tied to Brandon’s hosting of the 1997 Canada Summer Games.
Having lost a bid for the 2017 Canada Summer Games, this city will not find itself in a similar position or in the national limelight anytime soon. Perhaps that is a blessing in disguise. With the floodwaters now departed and cleanup and restoration at the forefront, we have a chance to reimagine this master plan without a timeline forcing the issue.
Brandon is not alone when it comes to riverbank woes. Five years ago, then-Manitoba NDP leadership aspirant Greg Selinger promised to use the Red River Floodway to control summer river levels to maximize the use of The Forks walkway. A committee that had been tasked with reviewing floodway operating rules is examining the issue, but the 2014 flood has delayed its release.
The river walk at The Forks has only been open for the full summer season once — in 2012 — since the premier made his pledge. In the meantime, there are ongoing calls in Winnipeg to raise the level of the walkway so that seasonal flooding does not continue to disrupt its use.
We have no doubt that, whatever solution is finally settled upon, Winnipeg will continue to develop and use its riverbanks to enhance the lucrative tourist market and for local recreation. So too should Brandon not merely wall off the developments we have made and take a hands-off approach to the rest of the river.
It’s our opinion that Brandonites want to continue our city’s love affair with the Assiniboine. What we need to do is begin a public conversation on how our expectations can be met, in light of the very real threat of ongoing floods.
And in the lead-up to the Oct. 22 municipal election, we should be demanding some vision on this issue from our want-to-be-elected officials.