RM of Kelsey Reeve Rod Berezowecki at dyke fall 2011
- RM of Kelsey marking future gates along Rall’s Island dyke, fall 2011
In the spring of 2011, there was water, water everywhere in western Canada.
Amidst the media concern for floods in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan — the Hoop and Holler break, the village of Roche Percee, incredible damage at Minot, ND — all the water from the entire North and South Saskatchewan River system was heading for The Pas. This wasn’t news — after all, all the water from both the North and South Saskatchewan River system (that which is not drained off for irrigation, kept in lakes behind dams, seeps into the soil or lifts off into the atmosphere) ends up at The Pas. It’s simply hydrology: the two rivers converge into one (east of Prince Albert at The Forks) and, after a brief stop in Tobin Lake, are released by Sask Power from the E.B. Campbell Dam to continue the river’s many winding paths east through the spectacular Saskatchewan Delta and past the village of Cumberland House.
The amount of water that flows into the Delta is unstable, and has been since the early 1960s and the creation of what was (then) the Squaw Rapids hydroelectric dam. Whereas prior to the dam, natural flows used to rise in the summer and fall in the winter, the dam holds back water in summer in Tobin Lake. All too often, flow was cut off completely, leading to fish being stranded in puddles in the river, and a probable overall drop in the lake levels at Cumberland Lake. That water is kept at Tobin to be released throughout the winter, providing power when the cold and dark Saskatchewan winters leave us hunkering in our homes, furnaces blasting, lights, televisions, and computers all running. Of course, winter releases carry their own issues: unstable ice development, for example. No wonder the Cumberland House community pushed for years for recompense, and a bridge.
But I digress. I was talking about The Pas.
In the late spring of 2011, the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains was deep; the water in the rivers running from the mountains, high. The old saying “if the Good Lord’s willing, and the creek don’t rise”, or Johnny Cash’s classic hit, “Five Feet High and Rising” may tell the tale of rivers overtopping their banks — and both give a sense of what the Saskatchewan chose to do in 2011. There was no way that the water could be held back in the reservoirs of Alberta or the Gardiner Dam at Diefenbaker Lake; Tobin Lake, which takes in water from the combined river, was bloated and the dam significantly stressed. Outflow into the Saskatchewan River Delta led Cumberland House residents to ask Ducks Unlimited to open smaller dams to release water strategically throughout the Delta, to ease pressure on their town.
But even if water could be moved around Cumberland, at least a little, the RM of Kelsey, along with Opaswayak Cree Nation and the town of The Pas, got it all. Sitting on a pile of glacial till, The Pas and surrounding area are the drain plug of the ‘bathtub’ of the Saskatchewan River system — all of that water eventually goes through The Pas. To add insult to geographical injury, the Carrot River also empties into the Saskatchewan at The Pas — and that’s where things get really complicated.
In a normal year, water coming down various minor rivers empty into the mighty Saskatchewan, which continues its trek through Cedar Lake and the Grand Rapids Dam before entering the Lake Winnipeg water system. But, when the Saskatchewan is bank-full, the smaller rivers — such as the Carrot — can’t empty out. In fact, they back up, threatening to overtop and flood along their banks, backwards from the Saskatchewan. Throughout the entire Delta region, along the banks of the Carrot, the Saskatchewan, and all the other tributaries, the water rose and rose, overtopping in many areas and threatening others.
Rall’s Island lies just east of The Pas, nestled in a triangle-shaped bend in the Saskatchewan River. Crossed by channels (both natural and man-made) and old dykes, this is a landscape that is used to being periodically inundated, or at least, threatened by the river. For years, the RM of Kelsey, which governs the patchwork of small farms and acreages that make up the Rall’s Island community, has been pushing for a massive dyke to protect the people and the infrastructure in this vulnerable region. This spring, with the Saskatchewan at 100 year record flood levels, all the pieces fell into place. The RM found a perfect storm of environmental necessity, political and social will, and economic backing to instigate the project. Throughout the late spring and summer of 2011, a massive earthen dyke was created using nearby materials, local and regional equipment and expertise, and plenty of volunteer labour.
The structure was more than sufficient to hold back the water. Indeed, standing on it, it seems impossible that even the might of Mother Nature could ever bring anything strong enough to threaten the new dyke. It’s almost a medieval fortification — perhaps their next building project could be a castle, firmly set within the dyke’s ‘moat’! Yet, climate change scientists warn us: it’s not so much that we should expect western Canada to dry up in a drought and blow away (those who survived the flood waters of the past few years would be the first to scoff at such a notion); it’s that ‘the new normal’ is exactly those extremes. Dr. David Sauchyn at the University of Regina, and his extensive research team and collaborative environment, warn: it is the oscillation between extreme wet, and extreme dry, that will be our future.
Rall’s Island has one side of that equation covered. We think.
Dyke crossing landscape like a road.
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