It’s Time to Harness Winnipeg Rivers

Commentary, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

The government of Manitoba deserves praise for its recent efforts to revise the Red River Floodway’s rules of operation. Until now, the floodway has only been opened during the spring snowmelt, but this year’s heavy rains have forced the Province to do something about summer flooding. The success of the river walks branching out from the Forks proves that Winnipeg’s rivers are an important natural asset. Unlocking and developing their substantial benefits for our economy and our quality of life should be a high priority.

Bryan Oborne is a natural resources consultant who works with many agricultural and wildlife organizations on land and water use. He notes that the floodway was designed to maintain “natural” water levels during the run-off. However, the Red River has not been maintained at any “natural” level since 1910. That’s when Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier opened the St. Andrews Lock and Dam north of the city at Lockport.

The Lockport structure was designed to raise summer river levels upstream, – flooding Lister Rapids to permit improved navigation on the Red. Its unique “Camere curtain” bridge-dam, perhaps the only such remaining structure in the world, is classified as a National Historic Site. It was originally part of an ambitious steamboat transportation plan to link Winnipeg to Edmonton.

The Lockport dam’s modern benefits augment its original intent. Its boatlifting and bridge functions remain and, as a prime spot for anglers to catch the legendary Red River channel catfish, its best-known value is recreational. However, its most important legacy is the maintenance of elevated summer river levels in Winnipeg. To get an idea of what the Red looked like naturally before 1910, Oborne suggests we ask our southern neighbours in Fargo, where the river dried up in 1988.

Without any means of storing water, Winnipeg would suffer the major seasonal fluctuations common to all prairie rivers. Winnipeg became an early leader in sewage treatment, because our rivers could not dependably dilute wastewater. Reports of the stench from a tiny, trickling Red River, sometimes containing more sewage than water, form part of many historical accounts. According to Oborne, using the floodway to alter river levels inside Winnipeg, without looking at the impact of the St. Andrews structure, misses a significant piece of the puzzle. He recommends an economic and environmental assessment to determine if the original reasons for building the Lockport Dam are still valid, improved navigation aside.

Every time the floodway opens, Red River levels rise upstream and damage the property of residents and farmers south of Winnipeg. Inside the city, several riverbank residents have launched suits asking compensation for eroded riverbanks – property allegedly lost due to the dam’s maintenance of unnaturally high river levels, which prevent the seasonal establishment of protective riverbank vegetation. Citywide, eroding riverbanks and falling trees represent a chronic infrastructure crisis, no different from crumbling roads or bridges. Similarly, the government’s slow recognition of the problem and deferral of remedies means substantially magnified costs for future repair.

The Red and Assiniboine Rivers support many sectors of the economy and generate substantial property tax revenue. Efforts to focus new downtown development along the river show a rare and exciting sense of vision, but we could so much more. A plan to link The Forks with key destinations like Assiniboine Park, Kildonan Park and St. Vital Park might allow tourists to board water taxis from downtown access points and travel to the future Pooh Museum or Rainbow Stage.

Our rivers should be considered a viable transportation option, linking the downtown with many sectors of the city, in both winter and open water seasons. Other cities do it. We need more access points, stable flows, improved boater training and better water traffic enforcement. Maintaining a constant level on the Assiniboine would, for example, allow riverbank residents to commute downtown.

Unfortunately, a comprehensive plan to capitalize on Winnipeg’s river assets does not exist. Our river walkways are unusable again this summer due to flooding; the long-term costs of riverbank erosion are unknown; and over the top federal fisheries regulations limit the options of riverbank landowners who want to develop or stabilize their own shorelines. Complex river management issues involve every level of government and many separate departments.

Oborne suggests a single river management and development authority for Winnipeg. With pertinent members from all levels of government, the Forks North Portage Partnership, businesses and all affected landowners, this entity would have complete responsibility from the Floodway to Lockport, and oversee all other projects in the Red and Assiniboine River basins.

Existing models in other cities show the potential. San Antonio, Texas, strikingly similar to our city, has exploited its riverbanks much more extensively. Closer to home, Oborne speaks favorably of the Meewasin Valley Authority, a 100 Year Concept Plan jointly sponsored by the City of Saskatoon and the Province of Saskatchewan. For 20 years, the Authority has tackled water and riverbank conservation, economic development, tourism, First Nations history and education programs along the South Saskatchewan River valley.

A long-term plan for the Red River sounds good to Oborne, who points out that we are currently using river structures and policies developed decades ago. A new wealth of watershed management expertise, not available to last century’s policymakers, can be tapped.

It’s time to harness the potential of Winnipeg’s rivers.