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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - The Red River has hit its highest level in the Canadian Prairie city of Winnipeg two days earlier than expected and should now begin to decline, government officials said on Thursday.
The Red rose one foot overnight to its crest of 22.5 feet because of heavy ice moving in from the Assiniboine River, which meets the Red in the city's downtown. The Assiniboine has now also crested.
The Assiniboine's ice floes moved earlier than expected, heading off a slightly higher crest that had been forecast for Saturday. The Red River is expected to crest during the weekend in the valley south and upstream of Winnipeg, where the river is in places as wide as 10 miles, dotted by towns kept dry with ring dikes.
"There's going to be some relief but we're not letting our guard down," said Steve Ashton, the minister responsible for emergency measures in the province of Manitoba. Officials couldn't say how long southern Manitoba would remain at flood levels after the crest.
The city of Winnipeg declared a state of emergency for hundreds of riverbank properties on Thursday to gain authority to force residents to evacuate their homes if necessary. That was only a precaution to allow emergency workers fast access to dikes that might need repair, Ashton said.
He said he knows of only one city family evacuated to allow work on a dike.
The provincial government expects flooding along the Red River south of Winnipeg to be the second worst on record, following only 1997's "Flood of the Century." Mild temperatures this week have caused a rapid melt of ice in the rivers and snow in the region's fields.
The Red's crest in Winnipeg fell two feet short of that measured in 1997.
The province, and especially Winnipeg, are protected by a floodway that channels excess water around the city, a dam and a diversion channel on the Assiniboine.
Few city homes have been damaged this spring as a result, in contrast to a big 1950 flood, which predated floodway protection. That year, 107,000 people were evacuated and 10,000 homes were destroyed as Winnipeg endured floods for 51 days.
North of Winnipeg this year, ice jams on the Red River have damaged some homes.
This spring's crest would have been nine feet higher if not for flood protection measures, officials said.
Smaller communities in the region rely on rings of earth and sandbags, but residents are evacuated when the dikes are fully closed off because emergency officials can no longer reach them.
Editing by Rob Wilson