Red River Floodway expansion underway — “Duff’s Ditch” has saved billions

by Bruce Cherney

“If posterity is to remember anything about the second Roblin, it will be because of Duff’s Ditch ... the ditch has captured the public imagination. It is obvious, it is big, and its protection works for all to see,” wrote Duff Roblin in his memoir Speaking for Myself: Politics and Other Pursuits.

The second Roblin — the first was his grandfather Rodmond Roblin, the Manitoba premier from 1900 to 1915  — pushed for and was successful in building the 48-kilometre long Red River Floodway. In the beginning, the floodway was referred to derisively as “Roblin’s Folly,” but  as it proved its worth time and time again over the years in protecting Winnipeg from flooding, it became affectionately known as “Duff’s Ditch.”

It is fair to say that without Roblin’s tenacity in supporting the project, the floodway would never have been built.

Recently, the second floodway project got underway — the doubling of its existing capacity to protect Winnipeg from a one-in-700-year flood at a cost of $665 million over five years.

The decision to expand the floodway came shortly after the 1997 “flood of the century” when the capacity of the system was nearly reached and disaster narrowly avoided.

The existing floodway had been designed to protect Winnipeg from a flood that would be exceeded once in 160 years, but recalculations following floods from the 1960s to 1997 showed that the floodway actually only provided protection against a one-in-90-year flood. 

A flood of the magnitude that occurred in 1826 would have overwhelmed the existing floodway and caused billions of dollars in damage. The flood of 1826 was 40 per cent greater in volume than the 1997 flood and nearly two metres higher than the 1950 flood. Water during the 1826 flood flowed at 225,000 cubic feet per second, while the 1997 flood had 163,000 cubic feet per second.

In a study, the International Joint Commission concluded that “under flow conditions similar to that experienced in 1997, the risk of a failure of Winnipeg’s flood protection infrastructure is high.”

Bruce Rawson, the chairman of the task force that co-ordinated the studies for the IJC, called the 1997 flood a “reality check. It came far too close to the limits of protection. There is now a public acceptance that 1826 was real and protection to that level should be part of the protection arsenal.”

Besides the floodway, the flood protection system includes the Portage Diversion (Assiniboine River to Lake Manitoba) and the Shellmouth Dam and Reservoir (along the Assiniboine River), all of which were constructed in 1960s. The Brunkild dike, expanded by 15 kilometres in 1997, is also part of the existing flood protection strategy.

Without the floodway, it was estimated that a large portion of Winnipeg would have been inundated, hundreds of thousands of people would have needed to be evacuated (27,400 people living in southern Manitoba did have to be evacuated) and the main economy of the province would have been paralyzed. A recent comparison is what has happened in New Orleans, a city of 200,000 fewer people, because of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, which has virtually destroyed the Louisiana city.

The 1950 flood, which did necessitated the evacuation of thousands and paralyzed Winnipeg, was small in comparison to the 1997 flood which created a sea of water outside the city’s southern limits with disastrous consequences to rural communities. Although the floodway operated admirably, the sea of water threatened to overrun Winnipeg from the southwest. If not for the hasty erection of the 40-kilometre Brunkild dike, the floodwaters would have come through the “back door.” 

The citizens of Ste. Agathe learned all about the back door route during the 1997 flood. The community of 500 people 20 kilometres south of Winnipeg was inundated when the floodwaters found a way around the town’s diking system.

In 1950, 10,000 homes and one-eighth of Winnipeg was flooded. It is estimated that total damage was $75 million, or about a half million in today’s dollars. 

When it was completed in 1968, the floodway cost $62.2 million to build. 

The floodway has been used 20 times since its construction — this year it had to be used because of heavy summer rains — and has saved an estimated $9 billion in potential damages to Winnipeg. Manitoba Water Stewardship Minister Steve Ashton said the 1997 flood alone would have contributed $6 billion in damages.

The floodway has turned away floodwaters in 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1979. 1983, 1987, 1989, 1992, 1995, 1996 and 1997, and has also been used when a high Red River water level threatens to create widespread erosion of its banks and sewer back-ups as it did this year.

To oversee the expansion of the floodway, the province passed the Floodway Authority Act and appointed Ernie Gilroy as the CEO of the Manitoba Floodway Expansion Authority Inc. 

Henry Youle Hind, writing about an expedition to the Red River in 1857, reported that known floods had occurred in 1776, 1790, 1809, 1826 and 1852.

“In 1852, the Bishop of Rupert’s land estimated the breadth of the inundated country to be about 12 miles (19 kilometres) a short distance below Fort Garry (Winnipeg),” wrote Hind. “Although the flood of 1852 was not as high as that of 1826, yet its effects were very severely felt in St. John’s and St. Paul’s parish and about Fort Garry.”

Alexander Ross, a fur trader who retired to the Red River Settlement in 1826, said the 1826 flood had created an inland sea with only a few dry spots of land protruding above the floodwaters.

“While the frightened inhabitants were collected in groups on any dry spot that remained visible above the waste of waters, their houses, barns, carriages, furniture, fencing, and every description of property, might be seen floating along over the wide extended plain beyond engulfed in lake Winnipeg,” wrote Ross.

The 1950 flood came as shock to most Manitobans. Minor floods had occurred but there had been nothing of great magnitude in Winnipeg since 1861. The city had remained relatively unscathed for years and the collective memory of the potential damage a 

major flood could create lapsed into the annals of history. 

When the 1950 flood came, it provided a wake-up call, though not enough of one to prevent some politicians from opposing a major expenditure on flood protection.

Unlike the 1950s, today’s politicians all agreed that it was necessary to expand the floodway. In 1950s, there was more dittering than action.

“I knew a 1950 flood could come again,” wrote Roblin.“Naturally I demanded action. Every year that passed brought us closer to another crisis.”

When the 1950 flood struck, Roblin was an opposition MLA. The province in the early 1950s was ruled by a Liberal-Progressive coalition (which had existed in one form or another since 1922) under Premier Douglas Campbell. His government’s slow action to declare an emergency during the 1950 flood and lack of decisive action for flood protection after the flood were highly criticized.

A 1953 reported released by federal engineers outlined a number of options that could be followed for flood protection, but most of their remedies would have little effect on a flood of 1950 magnitude, according to Manitoba historian J.M. Bumsted in his book, The Manitoba Flood of 1950: An illustrated History.

Bumsted said the three recommendations the engineers did consider useful were a detention basin at Ste. Agathe formed by a 40-kiloemtre dike across the Red River (replaced later by Shellmouth Reservoir and Dam), a diversion around Portage la Prairie and the Greater Winnipeg Floodway, costing between $29 million and $82 million, depending upon the depth of the channel dug. The floodway was considerably more than the diversion ($5.9 to $6.9 million) or the detention basin ($12 million).

“(The floodway) offers the only positive means of flood protection because it would control the whole drainage basin of the river above Winnipeg.” said the engineers. And, for maximum protection, the system should include elements of all three recommendations, the engineers said.

The report remained on Premier Campbell’s desk for three years. Facing increased pressure to act, Campbell in 1956 asked the federal government for a cost-benefit study. Ottawa refused.

A fiscally-conservative politician, Campbell continually hestitated when told it would cost millions of dollars to keep Winnipeg safe from floods. The only way the Campbell government was prepared to proceed with flood protection of any magnitude was if the federal government kicked in the lion’s share of the cost. In the meantime, the Campbell government was content to only  build a system of permanent dikes along the Red River and part of the Assiniboine River that offered a small degree of protection. In addition, more pumps were installed to combat floodwaters. 

Acting under the continued pressure from the opposition and the media, Campbell appointed a Royal Commission on Flood Cost benefit on the eve of the 1956 election, but its report was not ready until 1958. The commission recommendation was the same as in the earlier report by the federal engineers: a floodway, diversion at Portage and detention basin at Ste. Agathe.

In the 1958 provincial election campaign Roblin, now the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, made flood protection a major issue.

He formed a minority government following this election and then obtained a majority following the 1959 provincial election.

Roblin wrote that even his own caucus wasn’t too enthusiastic for the construction of a floodway, but he convinced them of its merits.

“But political opposition in the Legislature was vocal. They were skeptical of the plan. They rejected the cost. The whole proposal was unnecessary. A flood like 1950 — to say nothing of a greater one — was quite unlikely. Even if that was not so, they questioned the effectiveness of the recommendation. They fell back on the assertion that the interest carrying charges on the money would sink the project. That prompted some one of them to coin the epithet ‘Roblin’s Folly’ to underline their disapproval. Our firm public undertaking to proceed with flood protection had, they said, let Ottawa off the hook. Expect little from them. But we stuck to our guns. We would go ahead and Ottawa would help.”

Roblin in the floodway sweepstakes had an ace to play in Ottawa — the newly-elected John Diefenbaker government, a kindred Progressive Conservative whom he had supported. 

As well, Roblin also wasn’t adverse to using a little scare tactics. He told Diefenbaker that one of the options being considered was erecting a dam across the 49th parallel. The most obvious result of such an action would be spring run-off water trapped south of the border and enhanced flooding in North Dakota and Minnesota.

The threat was only to reinforce the message to Diefenbaker that the Manitoba premier was serious about flood protection.

Without federal support, the floodway didn’t have a snowball’s hope in hell of proceeding. At the time, the funding formula for cost-sharing on water projects was one-third by Ottawa with the majority provided by the province in need. But, Roblin reasoned that the Red River was an international waterway and that water impacting Manitoba rises in the United States “beyond our control,” so flood control had international implications important to Ottawa.

Diefenbaker wasn’t impressed by the international argument and at first refused to budge beyond the existing guidelines of cost-sharing.

Roblin got his chance to present his case during a Diefenbaker visit. The two met in “a small pokey hotel bedroom in Winnipeg.”

“Negotiating with John (Diefenbaker) was an experience,” wrote Roblin. “He manoeuvred me up one side of the question and down the other ... our personal and political relations and more were explored in detail.”

Roblin said the negotiations were tough because “Diefenbaker had been well-briefed, and he held to his brief. I was equally persistent.”

His persistence paid off. He managed to wrangle a 55-per-cent federal and 45-per-cent provincial cost-sharing agreement.

“Of course, $26 million (required by the province) scandalized the opposition.” As well, a small committee of leading businessmen warned that the floodway wasn’t needed and said that the province would be unable to pay for its share.

Roblin’s plan wasn’t to borrow the money for the project, but to spread the project out over several years and take annual funding out of current revenues, a strategy which would provide to be highly successful.

The first bulldozer began work on the floodway on October 6, 1862. By the time the project was completed in 1968 from St. Norbert to near Lockport — on schedule — more earth had been excavated than during the St. Lawrence Seaway project or construction of the Panama Canal. The average depth of the floodway was nearly 10 metres and the overall width was more than 100 metres. The design capacity of the floodway was 80,000 cubic feet per second, more than double the old capacity of the Red River.

“The 1950 flood was a traumatic and defining experience for Winnipeg and Manitoba,” said Roblin. “My part in that test made me determine to do what might be necessary to deal with a similar future threat to life in the valley. That was the basis of our policy. Duff’s Ditch is there, and Duff’s Ditch works.”