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SASKATOON, Saskatchewan (Reuters) - Manitoba's biggest city of Winnipeg will defend itself against the Red River's highest crest without its prized floodway, an C$858 million ($692 million) ditch designed to channel floodwater around the provincial capital.
Backhoes and specialized ice-breaking machines have instead assembled along the river as the first of two crests, caused by ice jams on the north-flowing river, hits Winnipeg as early as Tuesday.
Freezing temperatures in the Western Canadian province have been a mixed blessing: preventing flash floods from a sudden melting, but creating potential ice-jam flooding that the floodway wasn't designed to handle.
The provincial government is counting on backhoes perched on the river bank and two ice-cutting barges trolling the Red River to break up ice enough to keep the river flowing.
"We're using every tactical resource we can," said Steve Ashton, Manitoba's minister responsible for emergency management.
The floodway's gates will remain closed until either the ice has passed by or if the crest is forecast to exceed 20 feet, said Steve Topping, a spokesman for the Manitoba government's Water Stewardship Department.
This spring's flood scenario brings with it a triple threat, Ashton said. Culverts in fields are frozen shut, ice jams are slowing the flow of rivers, and there's a large volume of water on its way from already-flooded North Dakota.
The first Red River crest to hit Winnipeg -- caused by the ice jams -- is expected on Tuesday or Wednesday, rising as high as 20.5 feet. On Monday morning, the Red's level was at 17 feet.
The second crest of 18 feet is expected on April 17, this time caused by the surge of water arriving from the United States. It's projected to be lower because the ice will be gone and the floodway will be open.
The Red River crested Monday in Drayton, North Dakota.
The city of Winnipeg's emergency operations center estimates 195 homes are at risk of flooding. A private school called on Monday for volunteers to lay 2,000 sandbags.
But Manitoba's senior flood forecaster, Alf Warkentin, said he expects the river's impact on the city to be minor, unless there's a serious ice jam.
Environment Canada forecasts high temperatures slightly above freezing through Thursday, before warmer temperatures and a faster melt set in for the weekend.
In North Dakota, farmers continue to struggle to feed their cattle as heavy, melting snow and flooding make some roads impassible and with cold causing calves to freeze to death. Dr. Susan Keller, a veterinarian with the state's Agriculture Department, estimates between 10,000 and 25,0000 head of cattle could die because of the severe conditions.
Editing by Rob Wilson