Heavy equipment contractors in Manitoba have their fingers crossed that the Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin Outlet Channels project will receive final clearance approval soon so work can begin this year.
The $540-million project would be one of the largest earthmoving ventures ever undertaken in Manitoba and one of the most significant flood mitigation efforts since the expansion of the Red River Floodway.
“We are having good discussions with the provincial government and, by extension, with the national government,” says Chris Lorenc, president of the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association (MHCA). “We are encouraging each to work together towards the necessary common goal of ensuring that they can proceed for sign-off so that construction on this four-year project can begin as early as the fall of 2021.”
The project consists of building two diversion channels, each roughly 24 kilometres long, along with bridges, water control structures and highway infrastructure. The Lake Manitoba Outlet Channel will run north from Watchorn Bay on Lake Manitoba to Birch Bay on Lake St. Martin while the Lake St. Martin Outlet Channel will run northeast from Lake St. Martin to Lake Winnipeg south of Willow Point.
The massive project is aimed at enhancing the existing network of flood mitigation infrastructure to protect communities around the lakes. The channels were first identified as a necessary project after flooding in 2011 and would provide the province with the means to regulate water levels on the two lakes.
The plan is to dig the two channels to replace the current St. Martin Emergency Channel Outlet. A transmission line would also be erected as part of the project. Up to 150 workers would be required for the work.
The province had originally hoped to start work last year but the date was moved back due to COVID-19 and because landowners whose property is being expropriated for the project wanted an extension in order to relocate their homes, livestock and operations.
According to the latest timeline released by Manitoba’s Ministry of Infrastructure, preliminary design work is expected to be completed by the middle of this year, with actual construction starting in the summer. The channels are expected to be ready for operation in 2025.
The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada is presently reviewing a draft statement that has been submitted by the province which outlines how it will mitigate potential environmental impacts.
Manitoba Infrastructure is also sharing the plans with Indigenous groups and communities. So far, the province has signed six Crown Aboriginal Consultation Participation Fund Agreements, covering nine communities.
The two channels are necessary to prevent overland flooding and to protect people and property from overflows, Lorenc says, and heavy equipment contractors are ready to go as soon as the work gets the green light.
“The project is needed for a whole variety of reasons,” he says. “When you take a look at the floodway that Premier Duff Roblin had the foresight to build in the ‘60s, that has saved the country and the province in the order of billions and billions of dollars. The flooding in 2011 and 2014 alone cost well over $1 billion.”
Lorenc says the province is prone to flooding because of its typography and location, with water moving from the Rocky Mountains in the northern United States and boreal forests through northern Manitoba on the way to Hudson Bay.
“It has become apparent that we need water control structures and the outlet channels to manage the flow, not to back up water, just to allow for an orderly flow of the water from the basins that are affected such as Winnipegosis and Lake Manitoba, so that the water can work its way to Lake Winnipeg and then to Hudson Bay.”
While Manitoba has obligations to fulfill, Lorenc is encouraging the federal government to move on the project sooner rather than later.
“I understand that the federal government has obligations that it expects Manitoba to discharge. I fully expect that Manitoba intends to discharge its obligations. It would be unfair and unwise to the project cost and the damage it is intended to prevent for Ottawa simply to wait until every T has been crossed and I dotted.”
Lorenc figures the two levels of government should soon be in a position where the design of the project is substantially complete and the project should be allowed to get going.
Although much of the work will be earthmoving, there are a number of control structures, drop structures and bridges to be built.
“There’s a channel from Lake Manitoba to Lake St. Martin that is 24 kilometres and the channel from Lake St. Martin to Lake Winnipeg is 23 kilometres,” notes Lorenc. “There are four to six drop structures and there’s a bridge between the two projects, and there are water control structures that would influence the ability to manage the water flow that influence and affect each of the two channels, so there’s a lot of different work.”
Hatch Ltd. was awarded the engineering design and construction oversight contract for the Lake Manitoba channel while KGS Group was awarded the oversight contract for the Lake St. Martin channel.