Following massive flooding on the Souris River in 2011, officials and advisers are focused on a plan of study to prepare for a future deluge. Todd Sando, who recently left his position as co-chairman of the International Souris River Board, made the plan the focus of his final days with the organization.
Sando said existing water management plans for the region of Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Manitoba didn’t take into account the possibility of flooding by rainfall, but looked only at flooding caused by melting snow. Climate patterns since western record-keeping began – in the late 1800s in some areas and the mid-20th century in others -- largely saw a cycle of snowmelt causing river surges in the spring, followed by less precipitation in the spring and summer months. In recent years, that has changed with heavy storms hitting in the warmer months.
“It could be from climate change, or a new (weather) cycle,” Sando said. “We’ve had floods that were off the charts, floods on the Souris and Missouri Rivers that were caused by rain.”
The current guidelines for Souris River flood control were drafted in 1989 and direct managers to use dams and reservoirs to control water flow, prepare a water supply for drier months and guard against floods. Sando said he’s hoping new guidelines, when adopted, will provide more guidance to make sure that while water supplies are safeguarded, managers can let water flow out before major precipitation events hit.
An initial plan of study was submitted to the Canadian and US governments in 2013, and includes 24 different study proposals to gather enough information to make suitable recommendations.
IJC US Section Chair Lana Pollack said it’s important to expand and deepen the studies undertaken around the basin so that final recommendations and changes take all potential information into account. In March, the Canadian government announced CDN$19.5 million over five years to fund studies for the Souris and other transboundary watersheds. The IJC anticipates similar funding from the United States. Depending on the study, work could begin shortly after the US government has approved its funding.
IJC Engineering Advisor Dr. Mark Gabriel said the Souris River Plan of Study submitted in 2013 is currently being revised to ensure it reflects current water management needs in the basin, after taking into account elements of the plan that have already been completed.
Pollack said the Souris flood of 2011 still “seems like yesterday” to the people who went through it, but there are no quick fixes to prevent another flood of that magnitude, or any one fix that will work for everybody. Instead, the International Souris River Board and the IJC have to balance urban and rural interests, as well as interests upstream and downstream. The specter of climate change is adding another dimension, as the region could see more intense weather events and other unknowns, she said.
The final recommendations could range from managing the existing dams and reservoirs differently to adding diversions, or any number of other outcomes, Pollack said.
With revisions to the plan of study underway, Sando has decided to end his 31-and-a-half-year career working with water matters and the IJC in North Dakota, though he refuses to call it a retirement. Sando has worked with the State Water Commission during that time and became the state engineer in 2010, at which time he was also appointed to the IJC’s Souris board.
Over the length of his career, he’s watched as North Dakota has entered a drier period where cities and communities across the state have needed to be more careful with how water is used. Unlike the coasts, he said the continental interior is either getting a lot of water or very little, often for years on end. Additionally, he said there could be more heavy rain events moving forward as the climate changes, with Souris basin experiencing periods of too much or too little rain.
Sando plans to spend some of his time boating on the Missouri River and notes the “most precious resource” of water will continue to be his passion.