You Can’t Lick a River That Won’t Fight Back

RALPH ALLEN July 1 1950

You Can’t Lick a River That Won’t Fight Back

RALPH ALLEN July 1 1950

You Can’t Lick a River That Won’t Fight Back



ONE NIGHT when the recent Manitoba floods were nearing their crisis, a tired man stood on a dike in Fort Garry piling sandbags against the brown, limp, pungent flesh of the advancing Red River. Although the river was near the top of the dike, its aspect was far from menacing. Its speed at that point was less than a mile an hour. Its rise for the last 10 hours had been less than an inch. The river was not charging against the dike. It was leaning against it with the seedy aimless air of a drunk hanging onto a lamppost. At that time and that place the river smelled more of disinfectant than of danger.

As the man walked back to catch another sandbag, he paused for a look at the shallow gutter on the dike’s dry side. Since he’d looked the last time, another inch or so of rain had filtered down from the top of the dike. Another inch or so of river had found its way around the end of the dike more than a mile away, and still another inch or so had come straight up from behind through a backed-up sewer. The man looked anxiously at the dike itself. A grey and strangely gentle finger of water from the fat and flaccid Red had poked through its 25-foot base and started to pluck a pathway to the streets behind.

The man dropped his sandbag, and with it a hearbroken curse:

“The dirty----won’t stand

up and fight.”

There were more learned explanations for the costly disaster which the most, sluggish and undynamic of Canada’s rivers was visiting last May on its fourth largest city and on almost 700 square miles of its richest farm land. But no explanation better expressed the river’s character. Fat without being muscular, brassy without being brave, elusive without being quick, the Red has always been a difficult river to clamp an honest holt on.

Its secret is size, not speed. Climbing a bank or breaching a dike, it takes its own good time, feeling for the vulnerable spots with the heavy, manyarmed groping of a giant squid. Then, with an apologetic burp—never anything so noisy as a rush or a roar—the Red moves in. It’s one of the few rivers in the world that can run wild while practically standing still. It has engulfed, uprooted and bankrupted the people who live along its banks on an average of once a generation for the last 175 years and its victims still haven’t found the means to catch up to it, much less to lick it.

In its more benevolent moods the Red has been a willing and uncomplaining servant to the million Canadians and Americans ^(divided about equally) who live along its banks. Until the railways came it was their best highway. Three-decked paddlewheelers raced bravely above the full length of its soft brown bed. Its level land gave birth and a name to the Red River cart, an ox-drawn tumbrel with high, squalling wooden wheels that could always be repaired by chopping down the nearest tree.

With the notable exception of Winnipeg, which pipes in its own supply overland, most of its cities

draw their very life from its thick brown water. Practically all of them, Winnipeg included, pour back their industrial waste and sewage. Less than 150 years ago the whole northern one third of it, plus more than 70 million acres of the good black land it drains, was sold for a cash payment that at today’s rates of exchange would come to $1.54.

Nearly every year it climbs its banks somewhere to remind the neighbors that the bargain wasn’t entirely one-sided. At least 11 of its floods have been ambitious enough to make the history books. In terms of the height it reached and the ground it covered, this year’s epic flood was only its fourthranking performance. And this year, as usual, the performance was more formidable than flashy. Yet when all the buts and what-might-have-beens were added up it was tragically clear that the river had won again.

Is More Money the Answer?

ALONG THE 555 miles between its source in - Minnesota and its mouth on Lake Winnipeg not more than a few himdred people got their feet wet, but 100,000 Canadians and 20,000 Americans were driven from their homes.

The river drowned only one man. But military authorities directing the defense of Winnipeg were so concerned by the threat to human life that they prepared to declare martial law and remove 320,000 civilians according to the plan for Southern England had the German armies invaded in 1940.

From the up-river cities of North Dakota to the northern suburbs of Winnipeg heroic volunteers threw more than 30 miles of dikes against the river’s flabby sinews. In its own unheroic maddening way the river slavered through and over and under more than two thirds of them and on into the basements and lower stories and in some cases right along the uppor eaves of 15,000 houses, farm buildings and business blocks.

Early guesses on the damage ranged so high (from $30 millions to an improbable $300 millions) that the governments of two nations, two states, one province and more than 40 cities, towns and rural municipalities were ready, after more than a century of fatalistic hand-wringing, to take their budgets down and try to find out whether a generous application of money mightn’t provide a remedy after all. Yet neither among the politicians who would have to raise the money nor among the engineers who would Continued on page 50

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You Can't Lick a River That Won't Fight Back

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spend it was there much real confidence that spending could do more than alleviate future damage over a small portion of the valley.

“If I had all the money in the world I couldn’t stop flooding on the Red River,” a top American engineer told me glumly. A Canadian engineer of equal standing said: “I think

Winnipeg can be protected against all or most of the kind of flooding it had to ride out this year. I doubt if it will ever be possible to protect the farms and small towns farther south.”

As with most public enemies, it’s necessary to go right back to the womb to find out how the Red got that way. It was born sometime between 6,000 and 12,000 years ago. A glacial icecap sat above its present drainage basin, slowly planing off the hills to the level of a curling rink. As the glacier melted, it left behind a lake bigger than all the present Great Lakes put together but barely deep enough to cover a modern skyscraper. Geologists have since named this glacial hang-over Lake Agassiz. The Red, its tributaries and Lake Winnipeg at the system’s northern end are Agassiz’ chief survivors.

For a few centuries the Red, blocked from the Arctic by the last of Agassiz’ melting ice, traveled from north to south, slurping over the shallow ridge of the Continental Divide to lose itself in the basin of the Mississippi. That it now pursues its waddling, somnolent course in the other direction, from south to north, is one of its two ancestral curses. The other is the flatness of the ground over which it was left to travel.

The Assiniboine Played Ball

The river’s average slope from source to mouth is six inches to the mile and on some of its Canadian stretches the slope is as little as two inches to the mile. Even at the height of the 1950 flood, the highest velocity it reached at Winnipeg was less than four miles an hour.

When the river is abnormally high, it just doesn’t move fast enough to get out of its own way. The early-melting waters from the south, loafing toward Lake Winnipeg, merge with more melting ice and snow as the thaw-line creeps north. The water from the south and the water from the north start crowding for gangway and some of it gets chased right off the reservation.

Thesea big river moving too slowly in an injudicious direction are the

primary geological causes of floods on the Red River. They never cause major floods unless four or more of the secondary climatic causes lend a hand. The secondary causes usually start with late fall rains in the valley, followed by heavy frost. The rain soaks the valley’s soft clay with moisture and the frost locks it away. After that, if the Red’s ponderous Sunday punch is to get a chance to land, there should be heavy snowfalls. Then there should be a late, quick spring, with night thaws helping the day thaws to pour more water across the ground that was already saturated six months before. If there happens to be heavy spring rains too, the Red can’t possibly miss.

All these factors were working for the Red this year and the water climbed to its highest level since 1861. It missed going a lot higher only because an old accomplice deserted to the side of law and order. The Assiniboine, last and largest of its major tributaries, cuts across the Western Canadian plains to meet the Red less than a mile from Manitoba’s parliament buildings. Some years the Assiniboine does far more damage to Winnipeg than the Red itself. Had it gone on even a moderate tear in May most experts believe that practically all of downtown Winnipeg and its suburbs might have ended up under between five and 15 feet of water.

As it was the Assiniboine at Winnipeg crested below its normal, nonflood level. The only open water on either Portage Avenue or Main Street, the two main thoroughfares, was sewer back-up and basement seepage ranging from an inch or two deep in the gutters to several feet in the west-end and north-end subway stations.

Perhaps because they’ve acquired the habit of regarding the Red as a hulking booby that doesn’t know its own strength and never harmed a soul except by accident, few of the Red’s neighbors held its latest performance against the river itself. Most of them were too busy getting mad at “the politicians.”

Every senior statesman with any interest in the Red—including Winnipeg’s Mayor Garnet Coulter, Provincial Premier Douglas Campbell and National Premier Louis St. Laurent— made at least one bad guess about the Red’s intentions or about tbe temper of the people who live beside it. In this there was a certain historic justice. It was a politician named Napoleon Bonaparte who set the stage for the long struggle between the white man and the river.

Nearly 150 year« ago, Napoleon’s Berlin decrees closing Europe to British trade forced the stock of the Hudson’s Bay Company from £250 to less than £60. This enabled an idealistic Scotsman, Thomas Douglas,

Earl of Selkirk, to buy control in the company with the help of friends.

Selkirk persuaded the Hudson’s Bay’s directors to sell him 116,000 square miles of Red River country for ten shillings. In 1812 he sent his first shipload of poor-but-honest Scottish families through Hudson Bay, up the Nelson and Lake Winnipeg to the forks of the Red and the Assiniboine. La Verendrye had been there exploring 75 years earlier and French and halfbreed fur-traders were still there when the Scots arrived, but these earliest Selkirk settlers were the first white people to set up housekeeping on the present site of Winnipeg with any serious intention of staying there.

They Ate Dogs and Shoes

During the next 14 years their second thoughts were many and tragic. They were caught in the middle of a savage struggle between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the rival Northwest Company for control of the fur trade. Northwest Company traders and hostile Sioux from the Dakota plains drove them up and down the valley from Lake Winnipeg to the border. Grasshoppers ate their crops. They migrated to North Dakota in hunts for buffalo meat and found little to eat but nettles. In 1815, half-breed traders stooging for the Northwest Company burned the settlement to the ground. A year later, a Northwest gang massacred 21 of them, including the governor of the colony.

These were only preliminaries to the stupendous ordeal that struck the settlers in 1826—the first documented year of major flooding on the Red. In the early winter more than 100 of the colonists made one of their periodic sorties south to Pembina in search of buffalo meat. In December raging blizzards drove them back starving and empty-handed, through snow four to five feet deep, many of them with wives and children to look after. They ate their dogs, their horses and finally even their shoes and 33 of them lay down to die alone or huddled in pathetic family groups.

Those who got back to the forks of the Red and the Assiniboine barely had time to put in their crops before the two rivers rose together in what is still rated ns the father of all Red River floods. As in 1950, only one life was lost, but Alexander Ross, an eyewitness, wrote: “The people had to fly from their homes for the dear life, Home of them saving only the clothes they had on their backs The

shrieks of children, the lowing of cattle and the howling of dogs added terror to the scene While the frightened

inhabitants were collected in groups on any dry spot that remained visible

above the waste of water, their houses, bams, carriages, furniture, fencing and eveiy description of property might be seen floating over the wide, extended plain to be engulfed in Lake Winnipeg . . Hardly a house or building of any kind was left standing in the colony.”

From Ross’ and other accounts, engineers have estimated that the 1826 crest at Winnipeg was almost six and a half feet above this year’s crest —36.75 feet above datum against 30.3 feet above datum. (Datum is the average winter ice level.)

The Red hit an estimated 34 feet above datum in 1852, and 32.5 feet in 1861 and in each of those years—the only others in which the 1950 crest has been surpassed—it all but wiped out the colony’s physical assets.

There were lesser floods in 1882, 1897, 1904, 1916 and 1948. Ross heard of, but didn’t see, two pretty good country floods in 1789 and 1809, plus a whopper in 1776.

Every one of these wholesale soakings up to—but apparently not including—the latest one has induced in large segments of Winnipeg’s population a strong urge to go away and stay away. In 1826 more than 240 disheartened Johnny-Come-Latelies took off to the Mississippi and never returned. Not long after they left, Governor Robert Simpson, recalling how the water had swirled around the ramparts of the original fort, built a second Fort Garry 20 miles downstream at a widening in the river.

Now the Floods Must Move

In 1852 the more discouraged inhabitants were talking about following the Swiss evacuees of ’26 to the Mississippi country, but reconsidered when they learned an Indian war was brewing up along their line of march. In 1879, as the CPR surveyed its transcontinental route, Sir John A. Macdonald’s government asked its chief engineer, Sir Sandford Fleming, to recommend a site for the bridging of the Red. Fleming urged the railroad to bypass Winnipeg and cross the river downstream, between the second Fort Garry and Selkirk. “It is futile to assume that the Red River shall never again overflow its banks,” he warned.

Fleming was overruled. Winnipeg stayed put. Ever since, the question that troubled the Red River Settlement for its first 50 years has been inverted. It’s no longer: Should the settlement move away from the floods? Now it’s: Can the floods be moved away from the settlement?

One of the best ways to regulate a river that tends to flood is to dam its old lakebeds, build reservoirs on the tributaries and feed the water out as the regular channels can handle it. This has never worked on the Red and probably never can work except on a very limited and local scale. By the time Lake Agassiz had finished its landscaping, the squat smooth Red River Valley was a valley only in name. With insignificant exceptions, the lakebeds that are left are already filled or too small to matter. The hopeful theory, expressed by more than one Canadian politician, that floods in Manitoba can be stopped on the American headwaters of the Red, simply doesn’t stand up. The water’s got to go somewhere and Uncle Sam hasn’t any place to put it either.

I went to St. Paul recently to talk to officials of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers who began work a year ago on a $17 million system of public works for the regulation of the whole American end of the Red River basin. For all the ruckus it’s raised north of the border, the Red has always—with the

probable exception of 1950—saved its biggest headaches for the 600,000 North Dakotans and Minnesotans who live along its upper two thirds. Not counting this year’s performance, which drenched as much farmland and at least a tenth as much city property in the U. S. as in Canada, the river has cost Americans an average annual flood bill of $1,400,000 ever since they started keeping track.

American Plans For the Red

They fear too much Red River down there too. They fear too little Red River even more. Fargo, Grand Forks, most of the smaller towns and many of the farms on its watershed depend on the Red for their water. Virtually all the cities and towns also depend on the Red to take their sewage away. During the drought of the thirties the river dried up on them. In 1934 there was a period of six months during which not a drop of its water went through Fargo—and Fargo is almost 150 miles from the river’s source. The result was described officially by the United States National Resources Committee. Reporting only on the American end of the valley the committee said, in 1937: “During the past five years the stream flow has been largely sewage, the water being reused several times before reaching the lower cities of the valley. The raw water available to the municipal water plants in this area is probably the most unsatisfactory supply in any part of the United States.” (Winnipeg still empties its treated sewage into the Red but pipes in excellent water from Shoal

At the U. S. end of the valley, as in many parts of the Canadian end, only those with short memories put floods ahead of water pollution and drought when they’re thinking of trouble on the Red. Fortunately there are some safeguards, such as dams and reservoirs, that decrease all three dangers. There are others, like dikes, that combat floods alone. There are still others, like the dredging and straightening of channels, that can decrease flood danger immediately around the improved channel but increase flood danger farther downstream.

The U. S. works now under construction include all these methods of control. They call for permanent dikes at Fargo and Grand Forks, a $2 million reservoir on the Sheyenne River, regarded as the only suitable site for a large artificial lake on the whole system; dams to increase the storage capacity of a small handful of lakes; and cleanup work on 275 miles of channel in the river and its feeders.

In 1948 Canada asked the engineers in charge to chart a dummy flood, assuming that all these works were; already in operation, and find out what effect they’d have on the peak flow across the border. The Americans replied that the net result would be to increase the flow into Canada by two per cent.

The International Joint Commission, a U. S.-Canadian body whose job it is to see that what one country does on mutual waterways doesn’t hurt the other, made no objection to the American plans for the Red River; according to engineers in both countries they’ll make little practical difference to Canada in flood periods but will give Manitoba better flows in periods of low water.

In the meantime, no one who really knows the Red puts the slightest stock in the old wives’ tale that Uncle Sam could, if he would, clap a funnel on its flood waters and ease them past customs a few hundred thousand gallons at a time. Some engineers

concede that a limited amount of relief might be obtained by checking erosion and runoff at the headwaters. Man’s abuse of soil and forests is a classic cause of his own abuse by rivers. But on the Red it’s a minor cause. The Red was flooding long before its adjoining fields felt the edge of a plow or its trees the bite of an axe. To quote a ranking Canadian hydrologist, Don M. Stephens, Manitoba’s Deputy Minister of Resources: "If there’s a final

solution to the Manitoba floods it lies in Manitoba.”

What’s the answer then? For the little towns like Emerson and Morris and Ste. Agathe, for the trim sections and townships of farmland south of Winnipeg, no answer is in sight. Their front is too wide and thinly held to make diking economical. They see the river at its formless shapeless worst and, like the dwellers on four out of five of the river’s 555 miles, there is no defense for them—even in theory.

For Greater Winnipeg the picture is brighter. The city lost its valiant struggle on the dikes in all but a few

sectors, but it lost so narrowly that in any discussio? of what to do next time a permanent system of dikes is bound to get respectful attention. So is the more expensive floodway scheme thrown into the ring by Provincial Premier D. M. Campbell.

Campbell and his technical advisers are hoping the answer will be found in a 22-mile by-pass around Winnipeg—in effect a second Red wide enough and deep enough to handle unaided the entire 100,000 cubic feet of water which flowed through Winnipeg every second during the 1950 peak. . Detailed plans for the floodway can’t be completed in less than a year. If they’re accepted— and the various governments concerned can agree who’s going to pay the shot—it will be at least another year before the floodway’s ready to operate.

Whatever they do and whenever they do it, the Red will give them a chance to find out how good it is. Lake Agassiz’ lazy lethal offspring seldom bothers to hurry, but it always shows up sooner or later. ★