Landowners in the Municipality of Ellice-Archie have unselfishly played a modest role in mitigating this year’s flood threat.
In the last two years, two elaborate dams were built, designed to limit water in creeks near the Saskatchewan border from flowing into the Assiniboine River.
The Upper Assiniboine River Conservation District has accomplished this through fundraising, without receiving any heavy-handed order from a government body.
Locally, municipal officials are on board.
"This is a really good thing," explained Ellice-Archie Head of Council Barry Lowes, a proponent of the project. "Trying to slow the water down in these creeks, that’s your only line of defence," he said. "And if it happens along the Saskatchewan border, the flow of the Assiniboine is going to lessen."
The conservation district has anywhere from 30 to 50 dams, said manager Ryan Canart, but two of their largest dams were constructed recently.
An unnamed creek running through a portion of Eric and Melissa Pateman’s land in Ellice-Archie, northwest of the Highway 41 and Provincial Road 467 intersection, is one example, built in 2015.
A mound of dirt, 3.5 metres high, holds back the water, while a small three-foot culvert continually expels water.
"When the flow is increased to the point where the three-foot pipe can’t take it all, then it slowly builds, builds, builds and a metre above the pipe, it starts to go through the spillway," Canart said.
Forged into an embankment, the spillway is an outlet. It discharges water until the leakage is low enough it no longer reaches the spillway.
"It’s a peak flow reduction piece," Canart said.
The dam, which cost approximately $50,000, has the capacity to hold back 70 acre-feet of water, Canart said.
The conservation district does not have the resources to calculate how much water is kept back, but Canart said, based on intuition and prior research on other earthen dams, it’s clear the investment is well-founded.
"If we can force most of the creek through a three-foot culvert, we think we’re winning, as opposed to a six-foot pipe downstream."
Farmer Eric Pateman, who owns the land, said locals have spoken for years, even before the devastating floods of 2014 and 2011, about holding back the water.
A willing partner has since emerged, in the Upper Assiniboine River Conservation District.
At no cost to Pateman, they’ve created a water pond that will be invaluable to his cattle in years of drought.
In flooding years like this one, "the issue is we get so much water so quick when it first thaws that if the dam wasn’t there, it would just rush through there … and destroy the side walls of the creek and everything in its path," whereas we’re slowing it down, he added.
During this spring’s rapid thaw, there was one complication with the dam, where a track hoe was needed to break up snow that clogged the spillway.
Aside from that, the dam worked as expected, choking back water flow.
Three miles north, another dam was constructed on pastureland belonging to Lorne and Leona McAuley. It’s the most expensive dam the conservation district’s built, at a $76,000 price tag.
"You can’t explain this on the phone," Lowes said, while the sound of gushing water hurried through the spillway, built south of McAuley last year.
The tour happened only a few days after the Ellice-Archie community of St. Lazare, at the fork of two rivers, was on high alert this month because of surging waters.
Then, the province and municipality were applauded for deploying Tiger Dams, inflatable tubes filled with water, as a safeguard in case water seeped toward the few vulnerable properties. It never did.
Lowes feels it is these small dams that are the true proactive measure.
"This is how you get to the root of the problem," he said.
Canart acknowledged the dams are defenceless to massive 1-in-200-year flooding events, but in other cases smaller dams can reduce in-channel erosion and spawn wetland habitats.
"We need the Portage Diversions and these other massive engineering projects, but at the same time we should consider the local benefits to the municipalities here and downstream," he said.