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Floodgate finally to be opened on swollen Assiniboine River

Cpl. Troy Hammell of 1PPCI Edmonton sits among a pile of sandbags as he eats his lunch during a break just outside of Popular Point, Man, Friday, May 13, 2011.


Hours before his government planned to flood hundreds of homes in the hopes of saving hundreds more from inundation, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger addressed his waterlogged province directly.

"I'm here to tell you, tonight, that you and your families will not face this alone," he said in a Friday-evening address. "We're all in this together."

The province planned to open a floodgate in a dike at Hoop and Holler Bend in the early hours of Saturday morning, a step delayed multiple times in the past week as land-owners, assisted by military troops called in last Sunday, struggled to prepare their homes and properties for the deluge.

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Crews working since Tuesday at Hoop and Holler, about 90 kilometres west of Winnipeg, have sliced a notch in the dike and built a rocky weir (a kind of overflow dam meant to regulate the flow of water) around it. They planned to open the weir early Saturday morning, letting loose a stream of water starting at 500 cubic feet per second and growing to 3,000 cubic feet per second over the next several days.

The unprecedented step is intended to take pressure off dikes and diversion channels strained by a swollen Assiniboine River that's in the midst of a flood of a magnitude that comes around once every 300 years.

"Had we allowed nature to run its course, we would have faced an almost certain uncontrolled break of the dike," Mr. Selinger said on Friday. "This is a constant threat. An uncontrolled break would be catastrophic and unpredictable, spilling water onto more than 500 square kilometres of land. It would impact hundreds more homes, including those in the path of the controlled release."

The plan to cut open a dike "was not an easy decision," Mr. Selinger said. And both Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton and Manitoba Water Stewardship's Steve Topping were unequivocal earlier this week that this is viewed as a one-time only solution: There are no plans for the weir to be a permanent structure or a stop-gap measure in future years.

Mr. Selinger reiterated his promise to set up a special compensation program "above and beyond the disaster assistance already in place." Those affected by the controlled release would get compensation for costs such as lost income, which isn't usually covered by disaster financial assistance.

The province is hoping Ottawa will contribute cash to the special compensation fund; so far, while Prime Minister Stephen Harper has suggested putting money towards more proactive flood-prevention measures, he has no plans to give more than the government has already committed (formal disaster financial assistance includes a cost-sharing agreement between provincial and federal governments).

The province has estimated about 150 homes in the 225-square-kilometre area around the controlled release site at Hoop and Holler will be affected. But officials from local rural municipalities put that number far higher: Kam Blight, reeve of the rural municipality of Portage la Prairie, said it could be as high as 500.

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"Between them doing this or the uncontrollable [breach]" said farmer and resident Doug Connery, "I think when the true numbers start coming up, there's not much difference."

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