SASKATOON, Saskatchewan (Reuters) - The Manitoba government unexpectedly opened the floodway around the provincial capital of Winnipeg to cope with a sudden rise in the Red River and protect homes from flooding from ice jams.
The government had planned not to use the floodway while ice remains on the river for fear it would jam up the waterway, an engineered moat that diverts water around Winnipeg and gives the prairie city its main defense against flooding.
Manitoba opened the floodway at 11 a.m. CDT (1600 GMT) on Wednesday after the Red rose to 20 feet in the southern suburb of St. Norbert.
“No matter what measures we take, don’t underestimate the impact,” said Steve Ashton, Manitoba’s minister responsible for emergency measures. “We are throwing everything at trying to minimize the impact on individuals, homes, farms, everything.”
Officials said raising the floodway gates gradually will minimize the amount of ice entering it and keep the Red’s level at 18.5 feet. Most of Winnipeg is protected to a level of 23.5 feet (7.16 meters).
Ice jams threaten to raise the river level through Friday and possibly into the weekend, officials said.
The floodway was completed in 1968 and expanded after a 1997 flood that was dubbed the “Flood of the Century”. Manitoba has used the floodway to handle the threat of ice jams only twice before, in 1997 and 1978, Ashton said.
The brunt of the swollen Red still hasn’t reached Winnipeg after soaking North Dakota. A crest from those floodwaters is expected by April 16, once the ice has moved north, but at the lower level of 18 feet (5.45 meters).
Manitoba also expects serious land flooding once snow melts in the fields. Many culverts, designed to drain water, are frozen and the province is using steaming equipment to thaw them.
Reporting by Rod Nickel; editing by Janet Guttsman