The mouse that roared

Elizabeth May

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 of 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.”