As the Assiniboine River in Brandon begins to slowly recede, we watch with worry and bated breath as the crest passes on downstream.
The river rose faster than anyone thought possible. And if it hadn’t been for the very recent lessons of 2011, we hardly think anyone could have been prepared for how high it rose as well.
A summer flood is unusual. But digging deep into the historical records shows that it’s not unprecedented.
Readers may be interested to learn that a summer flood — not unlike this one — may actually be responsible for this city in the first place.
Many people will know that Brandon boomed upon the arrival of the railroad. Famously, we were an instant city that never went through the stages of a village or a town. But some will not know that Brandon was supposed to be located at Grand Valley, a few kilometres east of where the city currently is.
Yes, Grand Valley, which is currently under several feet of water.
In 1881, ahead of the railway’s arrival, settlers and speculators had set up shop in Grand Valley. But the railway didn’t want to pay as much for the land as the speculators wanted, and went across the river a little ways upstream. That turned out to be a lucky break when summer arrived.
Brandon Economic Development’s history page cites the diary of a settler named Ed Lowe from that year. On June 19, 1881, he wrote, "the water started to rise suddenly. The Indians said it had never happened before and that the high water was usually in April."
By the end of the month, the water was reportedly five or six feet deep in Grand Valley — high enough to lap two inches over the countertops in local stores.
The budding Brandon escaped floodwaters by virtue of its higher location, but that summer’s flood set the stage for a spring flood the next year. By all estimates, the spring flood in 1882 was larger even than in 2011.
There are historical suggestions of other, earlier floods.
A 2002 publication of "Prairie Perspectives," a collection of scholarly prairie geography papers, intriguingly traces hints of Assiniboine River flooding in 1826 and 1852, as well, concluding that it was likely both years saw significant flooding on the Assiniboine, and that there may have been summer flooding in 1851 as well.
In its final report on the 2011 floods, published last November, the Manitoba government traces the history of Assiniboine River flooding. It notes a flood in 1902 that appears to have been caused by summer rains at the end of June, reaching a level calculated to have been 1,178.3 feet about sea level — just shy of the height at which the city of Brandon closed First Street North this year.
So it’s possible that the floods of 1851, 1881 and 1902 were summer floods, while since then — through three floods in the 1920s, as well as in 1955, 1995 and 1976 — major floods on the Assiniboine have been strictly spring events.
It’s hard to fault forecasters for finding a summer flood difficult to predict, when the last one was more than 110 years ago. And in fact, the response from all authorities has been excellent.
We seem to be well prepared and well protected in Brandon now. But this year is a reminder that the unexpected can always happen. And it has often happened before.