Premier Roblin Builds the Floodway

Measuring the Costs and Benefits of Flood Protection

By George Siamandas

© George Siamandas


The 1950 flood was devastating. Winnipeg saw 10,500 homes flooded and 100,000 people out of their homes. Millions in damages not only in Winnipeg, but in the entire Red River Valley basin. In 1952 a Royal Commission recommended building a channel parallel to and east of the Red with measures to deal with the Assiniboine through a diversion. It had done a substantial amount of research considering almost every possible solution.

The likely cost: an unfathomable $ 63 million which no province could see raising on its own. The only way it could be done would be with federal assistance and that was only on a 1/3 federal 2/3 provincial basis. Too costly for any province to fund. Newly elected independent MLA Duff Roblin, grandson of premier Roblin, took an interest in the flood issue. When the 1952 report was submitted Roblin was concerned to see it not being acted on. It seemed the rural based Campbell administration was not moved to take action. Out of sight out of mind. But in 1955 spring flooding especially on the Assiniboine basin got the subject of flood control back on the public agenda. But still there was a wavering on how much it will cost to protect against a risk that comes once in 100 years.

In 1958 Roblin put the issue of spending the big bucks for the floodway on the Conservative Party platform. Roblin was noted as a reformer who looked at things practically rather than from a partisan viewpoint. Now in power, to Roblin, the real issue was how real is the threat of flooding and what economic cost benefits would there be to spending on flood protection.


The Red River runs within a very flat valley. Dams do not do the job because the entire area is so flat. 80% of the water comes from south of the border. In relation to the 1950 flood, the 1826 flood was 6 feet higher, the 1852 flood was 4 feet higher, and the 1861 flood was 2 feet higher. We could expect a big flood every 37 years. Not planning on providing flood protection was like putting our heads in the sand.


On June 1, 1912 Prof. Youle Hind, a distinguished western explorer and natural scientist wrote a Manitoba Free Press article recommending a canal drainage solution by a parallel channel east of Winnipeg as seeming the best solution. Despite all subsequent studies, it would remain the remedy of choice for the rest of the century.


The commission reported that each dollar spent would save $2.73 if financed at an interest rate of 4-5%. Follow up studies showed $1 spent would save $6. It further estimated that had the 1826 flood occurred in 1950, the cost would have been $700 million. Winnipeg had several close calls like 1956 when a sudden melt saved the city. Roblin and the engineering community were convinced the flooding was a real threat.

Roblin now had to finance the floodway. He met federal Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in a cheap hotel room at the Marlborough and told him that Manitoba needed federal help because flooding was an international issue. Roblin explained that since 80% of the water came from the US, he could put up a dam at the border and create an international issue. Diefenbaker agreed to more generous federal funding. Roblin then decided to pay for the floodway out of general revenues rather than through debt financing. In four budget years the floodway was completely paid for.


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