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Dry spring pulls plug on boaters
Some Manitoba rivers 'virtually dry'; Hydro holds back on power exports
Bill Redekop, Winnipeg Free Press, 22 April, 2000

THREE YEARS ago today, most of the province was bracing for the Flood of the Century as the bloated Red River pushed its way north towards Winnipeg.

Today, its calm waters are almost four feet below normal at mid-summer levels, as is almost every other river and lake in the province. And some cottagers at lakes this weekend across Manitoba will discover water below summer levels, making dock access difficult for boats.

"There is no water," complained Gary Brabant, owner of Wave Track, a canoe/kayak store. "A good paddling river like the Whitemouth is virtually dry."

The low water levels have forced officials to activate the locks at Lockport earlier than usual to bring the Red River up to a safer level for boaters. It has also made Manitoba Hydro cut back on hydroelectric exports to preserve power for Manitobans.

"We've been spoiled," Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider said. "We've had above-average water flow for several years."

But this year, Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba Hydro's reservoir for its northern generating stations, is already at 713.4 feet above sea level.

That's an acceptable level, but the normal level for Lake Winnipeg at the end of spring run-off is about 715 feet, according to records from the past five years.

Schneider said cuts in electricity production are more of a precautionary step at this stage.

"Yes, we're forgoing some sales, but we don't expect a huge impact on our bottom line," he said.

High water levels and increased exports in the past have allowed Hydro to freeze Manitoba power rates the past four years, he added.

If Lake Winnipeg doesn't recharge, exports would be cut further. That could force the utility to file for a rate increase this fall, unless it uses built-up equity to make up for the lost revenue, he said.

"If you get a good spring rain, all your troubles disappear," Schneider said.

But Environment Canada is forecasting below-normal precipitation at least until June. It forecasts above-normal rainfall after that, but projections that far in advance, "you should take with a grain of salt," Environment Canada meteorologist Rob Paola said.

There haven't been many April showers either. Rainfall for the month is running at only a quarter of normal to date, Paola added.

Back on the Red River, the Lockport dam's locks were installed Thursday, but it will take a week to raise the river's water level from as low as 3.1 feet to where it should be at 7.2 feet.

"Everyone's anxious to get out (on the water), but they have to appreciate that (the level) is not as high as it should be," Winnipeg harbourmaster Dennis Antony said yesterday. "Debris tends to gravitate out to the middle of the river. And that's where people have to be careful.

"There is no law against boating this early, but we don't recommend it just yet," Antony said.

The Red and Assiniboine rivers aren't the only Manitoba waterways that are low.

Excellent whitewater rivers east of Lake Winnipeg are flowing at a half to one-third their normal levels, Brabant said.

"People are kicking tires, but they don't want to buy (a canoe) yet" until they see some rainfall, Brabant said.

Cottagers could also be in for a surprise when they open up their cabins this weekend.

Pelican Lake in southwestern Manitoba is a foot below its summer level, and the Twin Beaches on Lake Manitoba is about half a foot below summer level.

The Winnipeg River is in a drought and some small lakes in the Whiteshell are also below mid-summer levels.

"If we don't get some rainy weather, it will be reminiscent of late 1980s, early 1990s," provincial flood forecaster Alf Warkentin said.

Water was so short in 1988 that people drained water from city rivers for irrigation, lawn care and golf courses. The Assiniboine River became so low it affected fish habitat and became so clogged with algae that cows refused to drink from it.

"This could be an off year, or start of a drought cycle, I'm not sure," Warkentin said.

Still, he said it's early and the weather could change overnight.

"You might get a wet month and be back in business," Warkentin said.

2000 Winnipeg Free Press. All Rights Reserved.