A judge has found the Manitoba government at fault for severe flooding along Lake Manitoba that destroyed homes and forced evacuations a decade ago.
Manitoba’s Court of Queen Bench Justice Joan McKelvey made the ruling in a decision released on Friday.
McKelvey acknowledged high precipitation contributed to the overland flooding, but it didn’t negate the impact of Manitoba’s decision to intentionally divert water into the lake to protect Winnipeg.
“It is only reasonable to conclude that the inflow of 4.7 million acre-feet of water into Lake Manitoba, which significantly raised the lake level, served to create the scenario of destruction that transpired,” she wrote.
Years ago, several property owners launched a class-action lawsuit against the province, alleging it failed to properly compensate people affected by flooding.
In 2011, the province diverted water from the Assiniboine River into the lake to protect properties downstream in Winnipeg.
Using diversion a ‘substantial cause’ of flooding
The use of the Portage Diversion swelled the height of the lake between 2.6 and 2.8 feet — likely higher — resulting in extensive flooding and damages, McKelvey wrote.
The high water level exacerbated the impact of a May 31, 2011 storm, when powerful winds whipped up waves, smashing onto the shore and damaging properties along the south basin. she said.
“The operation of the Portage Diversion is a direct and substantial cause of the flooding conditions and consequent flooding and property damage on Lake Manitoba,” she wrote.
Hundreds of homes and cottages around the lake were damaged or destroyed completely.
Lake St. Martin First Nation was entirely relocated and rebuilt, with evacuees returning home years later. Some evacuees from Peguis First Nation remain out of their homes to this day.
Lawyers for the province argued that while the Portage Diversion increased water flow into the lake, those water levels would have transpired naturally because of existing high water volumes.
“There is no doubt that natural climatic conditions converged to create exceptional volumes of water in the fall of 2010 and spring of 2011,” McKelvey said.
After promising increased compensation for affected property owners shortly after the flooding, the province eventually settled on the position (as cited in a technical review) the artificial flooding was incremental and not substantial in nature.
But the witnesses who spoke for the plaintiffs said it was the province’s actions that created a situation where dangerously high volumes of water were diverted into the lake.
McKelvey wrote “there is no question” Manitoba’s decision to manipulate the water flows, accompanied by adverse natural weather condition, resulted in the devastation.
“That said, a combination of causes does not negate a finding of causation and substantial interference,” McKelvey said.
Province reviewing decision
Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said on Saturday the province will review the decision.
“This lawsuit dates back from the unfortunate events of the 2011 flood under the previous NDP government,” he said in a statement. “Our government is committed to continuously working with communities and industry leaders to building and maintaining sustainable infrastructure to help prevent future flooding events like that of 2011.”
Jack King, a resident in the Twin Lake Beach area just south of St. Laurent. Man., said neither the former nor current provincial governments deserve credit, as both the NDP and current Progressive Conservatives fought the property owners on proper compensation.
But he is thrilled by the court’s ruling, he said.
“It was a vindication of sorts,” said King, who couldn’t return to his residence for about a year after the 2011 flood. “Beyond whatever money settlement comes our way, I think that kind of vindication went a long way to make people feel better.”
Brian Meronek, lead lawyer for the lawsuit’s eight plaintiffs, said roughly 4,000 people received some compensation resulting from the flooding through the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation, and he suspects “substantially fewer” will be eligible for a future payout.
He is hopeful the affected property owners and government can reach a financial settlement outside of court.
“It was a long haul and it was far from certain that this day would ever come,” Meronek said.
Meronek said the lawsuit was first launched in 2013, and many people devoted years to seeing it through. One of the instrumental people involved in litigating the case, Fred Pisclevich, died a few years ago, he said.
“In a way, I was doing it, in part, because of him,” Meronek said of fighting the case himself. “And I’m exceedingly grateful, and to him and I want his family to relish this moment as well.”
The province has attempted to alleviate future flooding by cutting two new outlet channels on Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin. The project has hit numerous regulatory snags over the years.
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