Flood talks dominate river board
BRANDON, Manitoba, Canada -- In the aftermath of this summer's Souris River flood, officials in Minot and other cities in the valley complained that they just weren't getting as much information about river levels as quickly as they needed.
There's a reason for that: The people responsible for supplying that information were struggling to make sense of it themselves, according to officials present at the International Souris River Board meeting Wednesday.
The board held its long-delayed spring meeting Tuesday night in the town of Souris, Man., where earthmovers were still removing temporary dikes, and then Wednesday morning in nearby Brandon, the principal city in the region.
Dominating the discussion was the recent flood, which damaged 4,100 homes in Minot alone, and, if not as physically destructive in Canada, certainly left an economic impact. The flood fight in Souris is expected to cost $4 million, according to Mayor Darryl Jackson.
The question facing the board is what can be done to make the next flood fight a less costly one.
Minot's Public Works Director Alan Walter spoke for the city at the meeting when he suggested, among other things, more rain gauges to gather more data and lower reservoir levels in advance of a flood fight.
U.S. officials have begun talks earlier to install more gauges in Saskatchewan. On Wednesday, the board discussed adjusting minimum reservoir levels, even modifying the 1989 river management agreement between the United States and Canada.
Still, there may be very real, very human limits to what can be done.
"What would you do different if you could do it all over again?" A resident of the Souris area asked at the board's meeting there.
It's a funny kind of question because board members had spent all evening showing charts and tables that implied there wasn't a whole lot they could've done to prevent flooding.
One chart showed that, between Jan. 1 and Aug. 16, 12.3 billion cubic feet of water flowed past a river gauge on Long Creek, a tributary of the Souris River. That's 2.6 times the volume of water for all of 1976, the year of the second-biggest flood, and 1.9 times the estimated volume of a 500-year flood.
Another chart shows why there was so much water: 13.6 inches of rain fell over Weyburn, Sask., near the Souris River between April and June, which was 2.4 times the average amount.
Replying to the Souris residents' question, board member Doug Johnson said flood management plans may have to be changed in light of this year's record-breaking volume of water. But he added: "I don't know how you plan for something like that. It is so large. I don't know how you can plan for it."
Johnson, an executive with the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority, oversees the Canadian dams that are the first line of defense against flooding on the Souris. The United States helped pay for the dams in exchange for flood water storage in the reservoirs, but the reservoirs weren't big enough to do the job this year.
One of the most frequently heard complaints about the Canadians during flooding and after was that they weren't always very timely about telling downstream communities in the valley, such as Minot, how much water the communities could expect.
Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman has grumbled that his city had only a few days notice.
The reply at the time was that there weren't enough rain gauges in Saskatchewan to alert dam operators to just how much rainwater would flow into the river.
More gauges will help, said Col. Michael J. Price, a board member and head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' St. Paul District. Flood models work only once water has hit the ground and it can be measured, he said, but it moves very fast when it hits the ground so there's little time for calculations.
Johnson said the problem is the amount of rain that falls in one storm can vary greatly from one area to another, meaning there has to be many gauges to accurately measure the volume of rainwater running into ditches and streams, and, ultimately, the Souris.
Knowing now that such a thing is possible means minimum reservoir levels will probably have to be adjusted. For the upcoming flood fight, the board is prepared to go below the minimum if needed. The 1989 agreement gives the board enough flexibility to do that.
In addition, the board is discussing studies that may lead to changes in the agreement.
Russell Boals, the Canadian co-chairman of the board, said it's possible that no such changes are needed and the board can rely on the flexibility built into the agreement indefinitely.
In the meantime, the flood still has an impact on reservoir management. Autumn is around the corner, but the reservoirs are still dumping water.
In Canada, Johnson said there is still land underwater. He said he's hoping for a dry, warm autumn so more of that water will evaporate.