The mouse that roared

The mouse that roared

That little river in Manitoba that has kept a community on high-alert for flooding for the last three months played a big role in my life.

I had loved my work in the office of the Minister of Environment back in the 1980s until what became known as the Rafferty-Alameda trade-off. It only became public when a diligent reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press pursued the rumours that I had resigned over the decision to grant the permits for two dams in Saskatchewan without environmental assessment. Barbara Robson, an award-winning journalist at the time for her work on asbestos, tracked me down and was the first reporter to ask me on the record why I had resigned as Senior Policy Advisor. The Canadian Wildlife Federation took the matter to Federal Court, where a judge ruled that, “yes, indeed,” those permits had been granted illegally. But that is just background.

What it means in 2011 is that the stories about the Souris River flooding mean more to me than to the average non-Souris area resident. What it means to me is that a tiny, inconsequential river, is flooding. And it means that tiny river is flooding despite having two overbuild dams upstream.

The Souris (so-named because it is a “mouse” of a river) is a tributary to the Assiniboine River. It starts from spring runoff near Weyburn, Saskatchewan, flows south into North Dakota and then doubles back into Canada and Manitoba. Most times, at certain spots, it is the sort of river that you can cross in gum-boots. The decision to build the Rafferty and Alameda dams was controversial and opposed by farmers because it seemed pointless and would flood good farmland to create reservoirs that many experts thought would never fill. The Rafferty Dam was built to deal with a one-in-a-100 year flood event. The Rafferty Dam was (purely by coincidence, of course) in the Premier’s riding (Grant Devine) and Alameda Dam was in the Deputy Premier’s, and later Senator, Eric Berntson’s riding. (You may remember his name as he was jailed, but not for this.)

Occasionally, the Souris would flood in North Dakota, with disaster-level floods in 1881 and 1969. The U.S. state government offered the Saskatchewan government $50 million to build the two dams in Saskatchewan. It was Manitoba that was most insistent that there be an environmental assessment. In order to do a deal with Devine on unrelated issues (getting Saskatchewan to translate its statutes into French) the permits under the Navigable Waters Protection Act were issued in 1988 — with completion of the Grasslands National Park thrown into the deal.

The fact that the media covers all floods in the same way drives me round the bend. The Red River floods annually. And the floods are getting worse with a high degree of probability due to the climate crisis. The flooding on the Souris is covered in much the same way. We get ritual pictures of sand bags; we get photos of people in boats down the middle of a street. We do not get explanations. Nor do we learn this is a tiny river which has never flooded like this in Souris, Manitoba. The Souris story is shocking: three months of dealing with a cresting river which, at its peak, was about thirty feet higher than usual. Read that again please: “thirty feet higher than usual.”

I searched recent stories in vain for adequate mention of the type of river that is now commanding 400 members of the armed forces to relieve weary residents. I found it in this remark from the town’s mayor, Darryl Jackson:

“Twenty-seven feet of water in this little lazy river is unbelievable. That’s about the best word to describe it,” Jackson said.

The little lazy river that took 400 members of Canada’s military to save the town. The little lazy river that forced 11,000 people out of their homes in Minot, North Dakota. The little lazy river that flooded, non-stop for three months. The little lazy river that has dealt a huge blow to farmers in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, cost local communities millions in damage, lost sewer systems, lost power.

Media stories (of course) dare not mention the obvious. This is the climate crisis. This is the tip of the (melting) iceberg of the climate crisis. Some parts of the area received the equivalent of annual rainfall amounts in less than two months. Unusually high snowpack the previous year also contributed. The fact that climate change is causing increased flooding across Canada is a sound conclusion based on the science. What I wonder is whether the presence of the Rafferty and Alameda dams made things worse or actually proved helpful in lessening the impact of the flooding. I will check with scientists with expertise in this area and report back to blog readers soon.

In the meantime, that little mouse that roared is saying, “Wake up! It’s the climate, stupid.”

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