THE WINNIPEG FLOODWAY
FROM DUFF'S FOLLY TO DUFF'S DITCH
by George Siamandas
THE 1950 FLOOD
After a long cold winter in 1949, and late spring break up in 1950, the Red River began to look like a lake. It had been 124 years since the Red had caused such devastation. But unlike 1826, when the area's population had been only 500 people, Winnipeg now had over a quarter of a million residents.
The 1950 flood caused the evacuation of 100,000 people of a population of 236,000. It caused $75 M in damage. This would translate to $500 M today. A nine volume engineering study, in 1953 recommended a diversion of the Red River around the City of Winnipeg. But little interest was shown in the project by the Campbell government of the day. They appointed a Royal Commission which did not report till after the 1958 election.
The floodway proposal was a controversial one. People didn't think it could be done; that it would be feasible to protect flooding. Others said the only way to do it right would be to straighten out the river. And the projected cost of $29-$82 M was considered too big a price in the day when the entire provincial budget was about $35-$40M. Premier Campbell, a rural man, was very concerned with spending such big bucks. It is thought that there was no political capital in helping the city. In the early 1950s there were only 12 urban seats of the 57 in the Legislature.
Campbell's government fell in 1958. Duff Roblin, the incoming premier is thought to have brought a different approach to government. He thought in terms of policy, he had no difficulties solving an urban problem, and was not afraid to spend public moneys to improve other areas like education. And there were now 24 city seats. But Mr. Roblin found it hard to get it through the legislature.
Completed in 1968, the floodway cost $63 M to build. Roblin was fortunate to have had John Deifenbacker to deal with as prime minister, and was able to obtain federal assistance. The feds paid about half of the cost. Roblin's government paid for Manitoba's share in four years of operating revenues. Mr Roblin says it is untrue that he introduced the sales tax to help fund the floodway.
It took a while to really see the benefit. For the first decade there was no serious flooding and the naysayers began calling it Duff's Folly. It took till 1979 to put the floodway to the test. It is estimated that the floodway saved $800 M of damages in the 1979 flood. The floodway has saved us $1 billion to date. This year it could save another $1 billion or more.
Right after the 1979 flood, the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce thought it appropriate to recognize the value of Duff's Ditch and erected a plaque in the underground concourse. On the inscription, Mr. Roblin is credited with "showing vision and perseverance in overcoming strong resistance" to have it built. Mr. Roblin much prefers the name Duff's Ditch to Duff's Folly. And each every new flood makes us aware of how much financial and personal anguish we are spared by Mr. Roblin's vision.
The floodway is like a parallel river built east of the Red. The channel is 29 miles long and varies between 30 and 65 (at Bird's Hill) feet in depth. It averages 450 feet in width. 13 roads and bridges had to be rebuilt.
100 million yards of earth had to be moved. This was 30% bigger than the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence Seaway. And it is 40% smaller than the Panama Canal. It has been used 16 times. The 1979 flood was about as big as the 1950 flood. The floodway can handle a 160 year flood. It can take 60,000 cu ft per sec while the Red River itself handles 70,000 cu ft. The maximum flow was in 1979 and the floodway carried 40,000 cu ft. The 1997 flood was bigger than the 160 year flood was expected to be. If it had to be built today it would need $350 M and it would take forever to pay back many times over.