Engineering marvel

Surprisingly, what was recently named as one of the engineering marvels of the world was given the go ahead after a meeting in a “small pokey hotel bedroom in Winnipeg,” according to former Manitoba Premier Duff Roblin.

In his autobiography, Speaking for Myself: Politics and Other Pursuits, Roblin said the only way the Red River Floodway could become a reality was if the federal government put in a significant share of its construction cost. But Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was far from enthusiastic about the project, despite Roblin’s assertions that a royal commission had recommended the floodway as the most cost-effective way to protect Winnipeg from being inundated by water as occurred during the disastrous flood of 1950.

When Roblin became the champion of the floodway, such massive projects were only built with Ottawa putting up just one-third of the cost. But Roblin reasoned the Red River was an international waterway with floods arising on the  United States side of the border impacting Manitoba, so he argued “flood control had international implications of importance to Ottawa.”

Diefenbaker was not impressed and at first refused to budge on the cost-sharing formula.

It was only in the confines of the “small pokey hotel bedroom” that Roblin finally got his chance to confront Diefenbaker, who happened to share a similar meteoric rise to political power which made somewhat of kindred spirits. Diefenbaker was first elected to form a minority government in 1957, but in 1958 pulled off one of the most spectacular election victories in Canadian history, winning a substantial majority in the House of Commons for his Conservative Party. Roblin brought Manitoba Conservatives from the depths of despair, winning first a minority in 1958 and then duplicating Diefenbaker’s feat by claiming a majority in the legislature following the 1959 provincial election.

“Negotiating with John (Diefenbaker) was an experience,” wrote Roblin, “he manoeurved me up one side of the question and down the other ... our personal 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: the total cost was $63 million) scandalized the opposition (Liberals in the legislature).”

As well, a committee of leading businessmen warned that the floodway wasn’t needed and said the province won’t be able to pay for its share of the project.

But Roblin had a plan that wouldn’t require the province to spend beyond its means. His plan called for no borrowing by the province, but to spread the project over several years and take annual funding out of current revenues. It turned out to be a successful long-term strategy, resulting in the first excavation of earth by bulldozers on October 6, 1952 and the completion of the project on schedule in 1968.

The International Association of Macro Engineering Societies (IAMES) officially recognized the floodway — as well as its present $665-million expansion — last week as one of 16 engineering achievements shaping the world from Biblical times to the present day. Among the world-famous feats of engineering, the prestigious Boston-based group also named such landmarks as Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain in England, the Lighthouse of Alexandria (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world destroyed by earthquakes), the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Dyke of the Netherlands which hold back land reclaimed from the Zuiderzee and the Three Gorges Dam in China which will eventually become the world’s largest hydroelectric dam when completed in 2009.

While the floodway is now affectionally known as “Duff’s Ditch,” it wasn’t always regarded with such reverence. At first, opposition politicians disparagingly referred to the floodway proposal as “Roblin’s Folly.” It was the floodway’s performance in over 20 potential flood events, including the 1997 Flood of the Century, which finally resulted in the floodway becoming widely known as “Duff’s Ditch.”

Ironically, although Roblin has become singularly associated as the champion of the floodway, it was not originally proposed by him, but years earlier by former Liberal Premier Douglas Campbell.  In 1950, Campbell had asked the provincial engineers to investigate the possibility of digging a 32- to 35-kilometre floodway that would allow floodwater to bypass Winnipeg. Amazingly, a 1950 map of the floodway proposal showed a route remarkably similar to the one now used. Campbell said such an undertaking would “materially reduce the flood hazard to this city through the excavation of a very large supplementary river channel ...”

The only real difference between the two proposals was that Campbell couldn’t convince his fellow Liberals under Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent to ante up most of the construction costs. Without federal backing, the Campbell proposal went nowhere, while Roblin successfully took up the cause eight years later.

If Campbell had been successful, the floodway may have been known to history as “Campbell’s Coulee.”

“The very large supplementary channel” built under the Roblin administration required the moving of 100-million cubic feet of earth — more than excavated for the Suez Canal, the St. Lawrence Seaway or the Panama Canal.

The new expansion of the floodway will require the moving of another 25-million cubic feet of earth which will provide one-in-700-year flood protection.

IAMES told the media considerations for an engineering project to be among the world’s top-16 include cost, size, volume of earth moved and its benefit to society. 

The floodway has certainly been a benefit as it is estimated $10 billion in flood damages have been avoided since it began operation in 1968. Its only close call came in 1997, which resulted in the decision for its expansion. 

Although today’s expansion is during the term of Premier Gary Doer, it’s doubtful the improved floodway will eventually be known as “Gary’s Gorge;” instead the engineering marvel of the world will forever be affectionately called “Duff’s Ditch.”