ARCHIVED - Manitoba Calls NRC's Floodbusters to Help Prepare for Potentially Disastrous Floods

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October 05, 2005— Ottawa, Ontario

Technology Pinpoints Water's Effect on Specific Streets and Individual Buildings

Hurricane Katrina's recent flooding in the Southern United States reminds us of the devastating power of flood waters. Here in Canada, many Manitobans have experienced the wrath of flood waters in past years, but so far they have been on a smaller scale than what Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi residents are facing. In another case of NRC demonstrating science at work for Canada, researchers at the NRC Canadian Hydraulics Centre (NRC-CHC) are helping protect Manitobans from future natural disasters.

Built in the 1960s, Manitoba's Red River Floodway is a channel that can divert the river around Winnipeg and limit the amount of water that flows through the city.

Unlike the torrential rains that accompany hurricanes, floods in Manitoba typically occur when river levels rise too quickly due to spring runoff. Consequently, the melted snow pushes water beyond riverbanks and quickly spreads across the flat terrain of the prairie landscape. Even though these floods tend to occur gradually, their impact can be just as devastating as flash floods.

In 1997, for example, Manitoba experienced the "Flood of the Century", which resulted in the evacuation of thousands of residents from communities in the Red River Valley and portions of Winnipeg. Fortunately, although coming to within inches of a major catastrophe, Winnipeg's flood protection system, including the Red River Floodway, saved Winnipeg from what many of our U.S. neighbours are currently experiencing.

Manitoba's Red River during 1997's
Manitoba's Red River during 1997's "Flood of the Century"

Recognizing how close it came to a major disaster in 1997, the Government of Manitoba is bracing itself for an even larger flood. Climate change and more frequent extreme weather patterns have prompted preparations for a future flood that could impact two-thirds of Winnipeg (population: approx. 700,000)*. The Manitoba Floodway Authority, a crown corporation established to expand the Red River Floodway, has enlisted NRC-CHC's help to assess the impact of a "1 in 700 year" flood that could happen at any time and would make Manitoba's "Flood of the Century" seem minor by comparison.

The engineers and scientists at NRC-CHC went beyond assisting with the Province's impact assessment. They also crunched numbers and prepared computer simulations to help the general public and other stakeholders understand the importance of investing in flood protection measures. The Manitoba Floodway Authority contacted NRC-CHC for its numerical modeling expertise and user-friendly animation software. NRC-CHC was also chosen because the Centre already had extensive data for the Winnipeg floodway area.

The floodway expansion will more than double the floodway's original flow capacity. The $665-million Red River Floodway Expansion Project, supported by Infrastructure Canada, is recognized as a national infrastructure priority. Upon completion in 2010, the floodway will be capable of diverting 4,000 cubic metres (about 140,000 cubic feet) of water per second away from Winnipeg's core.

According to the Authority, the existing floodway has already saved Manitobans from "more than $8 billion in flood losses" and the expansion is designed to further protect nearly half a million Manitobans from larger future floods. Damages from a "1-in-700 year" flood are estimated to be $13 billion, if the floodway was not expanded. Such widespread flooding causes infrastructure collapse (roadways), loss of communication and power systems, economical and tourism downturns, environmental concerns (sewage and fertilizer run-offs), personal property damage, lost wages, Canada-wide disruptions, and in extreme cases, injuries and fatalities.

Although many individuals at NRC-CHC supported the floodway research activities to help protect Manitobans, there were three key team members. Sébastien Bourban was the project manager who merged the one- and two-dimensional models that were used. Thierry Faure worked on the two-dimensional numerical models, using the software TELEMAC to ensure accuracy of visual outputs. TELEMAC was developed by Electricité de France. And Dave Watson worked on the visualization software package and assembled aerial, GIS and other data images.

Left to right: NRC-CHC's floodbusters -- Thierry Faure, Dave Watson and Sébastien Bourban
Left to right: NRC-CHC's floodbusters -- Thierry Faure, Dave Watson and Sébastien Bourban

The sophisticated technology that they used included adapting NRC-CHC's EnSimTM simulation software to predict and map potential flood waters. The researchers presented various scenarios that dramatically depicted flooding with and without the floodway expansion.

Bourban, NRC-CHC's Group Leader of Environmental Hydraulics, noted that "by bundling the results into animations, we helped the Manitoba Floodway Authority provide the general public with clear, visual information that was much easier to understand than mere numbers."

Incredibly, NRC-CHC's software provides researchers with a way of predicting and visually representing the impact of flood waters at any elevation for specific streets and even individual buildings. The technology also lets researchers adjust the information to take into account the water's velocity or speed of flow. This is important for assessing how currents might affect structural stability. Even in situations where currents are minimal, flows need to be measured because they can carry mud, debris and sewage which can cause physical damage and pose environmental problems.

In addition to affirming the need for a floodway expansion, the flood simulations also led to recommendations for major drainage improvements that go beyond diverting surface water. Now that environmental approvals are in place, the Manitoba Floodway Authority has begun awarding floodway construction contracts. Construction on the historic project will begin this fall.

Left: Winnipeg without the floodway expansion in the event of a 1-in-700 year flood (brown = sewer and basement flooding; blue = surface/overland flooding). Right: Winnipeg with the floodway expansion in the event of a 1-in-700 year flood (blue = minimal surface flooding).
Left: Winnipeg without the floodway expansion in the event of a 1-in-700 year flood (brown = sewer and basement flooding; blue = surface/overland flooding). Right: Winnipeg with the floodway expansion in the event of a 1-in-700 year flood (blue = minimal surface flooding).

"Beyond the two initial phases that NRC-CHC has been involved in, we are well positioned to contribute our expertise and technology to future parts of this multi-pronged project, says NRC-CHC's Executive Director, Étienne Mansard. The Manitoba Floodway Authority anticipates that advanced modeling, visualization and other innovative technologies will play key roles in future phases of the floodway expansion project.

In the meantime, NRC-CHC researchers continue to serve Canadian communities through environmental hydraulics expertise. Hydro companies and private businesses are seeking NRC-CHC's technical expertise and specialized technology to help prepare environmental assessments and conduct due diligence for potential dam breaches, other flood management scenarios, oil spills, water-borne pollutants and overall water quality.

* Statistics Canada, 2004 Annual Demographic Statistics, 2005

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National Research Council of Canada

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