After the flood: Duff’s Ditch does the trick

If ever secular sainthood is instituted, there is one 80-year-old ex-premier and senator Manitobans would almost unanimously nominate for the honour. His name is Duff Roblin, and despite the formal sounding “Red River Floodway”, or the proposed “Roblin Floodway”, Manitoba’s elder statesman and most successful floodfighter, is, like most people, content to keep calling the marvel of engineering he initiated “Duff’s Ditch”.

But Duff’s Ditch was not always referred to with affection. By the time it was completed in 1966, the Floodway was compared with the great earth-moving exercises of all time, including the Panama Canal.

The world-class price tag — $64-million — in fact, made Mr. Roblin political cannon fodder for much of his career. However in the wake of several highwater episodes since, including the flood of 1979 and especially this year’s “Flood of the Century”, Mr. Roblin, deservedly, has become canon fodder.

When the flood waters rose in the Red River Valley this spring, following a lion-like blizzard, Manitobans had some idea what to expect. Last year offered a glimpse of how the Red bristles at its banks from time to time. Indeed, flooding is part of the expeence of living on the flood plain the Red River Valley really is. So endemic is high water in the region that area Natives have a standard flood myth that eerily resembles that of Noah and his ark in the Bible. Native elders — not to mention geographers and geologists — can point to this day to physical reminders of the Red’s earlier risings.

When European settlers, beginning with Scots and Irish under Lord Selkirk’s aegis arrived early last century, the rich agricultural land along the river’s banks was impossible to resist. In fact by 1826, the hardy Red River Settlers faced what remains the proverbial mother of all floods when 340 cubic feet per second coursed up and through the Valley and remained for almost two months. Cubic feet per second, is the way flood fighters — from arm-chair observers to sandbaggers to professional hydrologists and provincial officials — measure the fury of onrushing river water. By contrast, the Flood of the Century gauged “only” about 125,000 cfs at its worst.

To understand this year’s flood, or any other past or future deluge, it helps to understand the Red River Valley, the lay of the land, so to speak. Not so surprisingly, the entire region rests on what was once the bottom of an ancient sea bed, that of Lake Aggasiz, formed after the Ice Age. Some say Lake Aggasiz never left — it simply recedes into the banks of the Red, returning cyclically, almost whimsically. The 533 mile Red at any rate, rises at Wahpeton, North Dakota, and empties into Lake Winnipeg to the north. The Valley is home to one of the world’s richest and most densely drained agricultural regions. In fact, human efforts to drain swamps and sloughs in pursuit of farming has exacerbated flooding, experts say. Swamps once served to soak up surplus water in the region, and delayed its rush into the river system. Some ag experts now call for the damming of the drainage ditches that replaced nature’s relief, to form temporary holding ponds that might soften the impact of future floods.

And it is agriculture that sustains around 1.5 million souls in the region. Of this number, it should be pointed out that only about 75,000 people, on both sides of the border, were in any way adversely affected by the Flood of the Century. Grand Forks (pop. 55,000) springs immediately to mind for most people across the continent. It was video footage of their downtown under water and, incredibly engulfed by flames, that burned the Flood’s most famous image in the minds of many. The Grand Forks fiasco occurred, most experts now concur, due to inaccurate flood forecasting that underestimated by four feet the Red’s waters in that unfortunate US town. Yet despite demonstrably superior forecasting by officials north of the 49th parallel, Grand Forks became the subject of media spin for weeks, a spin that spooked, if not panicked otherwise stoic Winnipeggers and Manitobans. Who were not, as pointed out above with out some protection. The Floodway, and the permanent earthen dikes around the twelve principal towns in the Canadian end of the Valley, after all was said and done, kept 90 per cent of homes perfectly dry. This was the story the media refused to report throughout the Flood, opting instead for worst case scenario speculations.

Today, the Flood of the Century is all water under the proverbial bridge. Prime Minister Chrétien was vilified for his almost comical one-sandbag-toss just before the federal election was called, but Manitobans sent Liberals, including Provencher (Red River Valley) MP David Iftody back to Ottawa. Less than 4 per cent of cropland will have been lost to the flood this season, but ironically, farmers are presently praying for rain. A couple thousand homeowners are still scraping a thin Red River gumbo shellaque off of kitchen and rec-room floors and walls, contemplating, it is suspected, a move to higher ground, permanently landscaped diking systems, and applications for a share of the millions in private and public flood relief still on offer.

Meanwhile, a hot Prairie sun shines on the concrete and steel gates guarding an earthen excavation stretching 30 miles to the north and east of Winnipeg. Inside, slick marketers do a brisk business in t-shirts, videos and other tacky mementos of the Flood of the Century — but city dwellers occasionally still pause, and offer a silent prayer of thanks for old Saint Duff.