Governments must float extra $60M to cover long-delayed Interlake flood channels

While flood waters are rising in some parts of Manitoba, so too is the cost of flood infrastructure the government says is necessary to avert similar events in the Interlake.

During an estimates committee hearing on Monday, the premier revealed the price tag of the Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin outlet channels has climbed from $540 million to $600 million.

Heather Stefanson refused to attribute the higher cost to delays, but said it was the result of COVID-19 and the need for more consultations.

On Tuesday, infrastructure minister Doyle Piwniuk added the project has become more elaborate through the environmental licensing process, as well as discussions with Indigenous communities and other groups.

“We constantly consulted with all the different communities in the area, First Nation communities and also the RMs, we made sure that we had any components that they would want to see,” Piwniuk said, citing the addition of fish ladders as one example.

“That’s the amount we came up with, which is $600 million.”

Additional consultation unnecessary: former premier

For years, the Progressive Conservative government under Brian Pallister blasted other parties for holding back the project, which it announced in 2018.

It slammed the federal government for imposing additional demands, such as discussions with First Nation communities that are farther downstream, it deemed excessive and unnecessary.

At one point, Pallister said his government set the “gold standard” for consultations with Indigenous communities.

Some First Nation chiefs disagreed, and Ottawa withheld its half of the $540-million price tag until the province met the enhanced requirements.

Homes and cottages in the affected communities of Lake St. Martin and Lake Manitoba were flooded in 2011 and 2014. The worst of those events was in 2011, when Lake Manitoba reached a record-high level, devastating communities and homes and prompting long-term evacuations. Some people still haven’t returned home.

Earlier this year, a Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench order approved a settlement agreement of $85.5 million for anyone who owned real or personal property off nearby Lake St. Martin First Nation and within a 30-kilometre radius of the lake that was damaged by the 2011 floods.

Piwniuk said Manitoba is currently waiting on final licensing from the federal government to start construction.

In a March newsletter, the province said it was continuing the consultation process. 

Many homes on Lake St. Martin were overwhelmed by rising waters in 2011. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

When the project was valued at $540 million, the two levels of government settled on a cost-share agreement of $292.5 million from the province and $247.5 million from the federal government

Piwniuk is hopeful the two governments can also share the cost of the additional $60 million.

On Monday, Stefanson said she brought up the flood channels during recent in-person meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Dominic LeBlanc, the federal minister of intergovernmental affairs, infrastructure and communities, and both individuals seemed to be receptive

Stefanson told the committee hearing she expects “good news” will be announced shortly.

“I don’t want to say more than I should right now, but I will say that I’m more optimistic than perhaps I was prior to the meeting with the prime minister and Minister LeBlanc,” she said.

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the project’s delays fall at the feet of the provincial government. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Meanwhile, the NDP and Liberals took the provincial government to task for the ballooning price tag for the flood channels.

They said the Tories are at fault for embarking on a shoddy consultation process from the start.

“Everyone in Manitoba has known since the early stages of this project many, many years ago that consultation and engagement with local communities, First Nations, RMs, the M├ętis Federation would be required in order for this project to move forward expeditiously,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

“It’s only the PCs who’ve been dragging their feet on this.”

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the initial application from the province was a “complete amateur hour.” 

“I talked with First Nations who were frustrated because there was a conference in February 2020, they said that they had oil companies who did better consultation and who were more respectful.”