“You’d think this was Manitoba!” This was a common remark heard along the sandbagging line in Benson this week.
It’s been a crazy spring. We’ve gone from wondering what the spring melt might bring, to witnessing how the winter’s snow added to last year’s soil moisture content to produce some of the wettest conditions anyone can remember. Fields under water, roads either being washed out on their own or purposely cut to save property, sump pumps in every basement. It was a trying time, but all we had to do in Saskatchewan was watch the news every night to keep up with what south western Manitoba was dealing with, and we could go about our business thinking it could be worse.
But Mother Nature wasn’t done yet. Week after week, rainstorm after rainstorm it got worse. Farmers couldn’t get out on their land, roads turned to quagmire, and still the rains kept coming.
“Saturation” is a word that has been overused lately but there is nothing else that describes the situation. The ground is saturated; it can’t hold another drop, so when yet another weather system dumped another two to four inches of rain on us in one day the stage was set for a flooding event like we’ve never seen before . At the moment Manitoba has nothing on us.
The hamlet of Benson made the news this week because it has the misfortune of being caught between a lot of water and Highway 47. Runoff from the deluge last weekend has collected itself into a river that doesn’t even exist and is making for the USA border to cause further havoc on the other side of the border – but first it has to cross #47. Suddenly prairie people found themselves students in the school of sandbagging ... and I found myself delivering a pump and some hose to my daughter and son-in-law who live there.
I don’t know what I expected to find when I got there, but what did greet me was pretty impressive. Parked along the west lane of the highway was a mile of pumping units, mostly oilfield pumper trucks with a few farmers’ tractors and pumps as well, 52 units in all, sucking flood water out of the ditch on the Benson side and over the crest of the road to send it on its way to the town of Lampman. I hoped the dike I had seen them building as I had passed through was going to be done in time.
Although a major amount of water had been flowing from the north for a week or two, this last rain had really compounded the problem. Benson authorities had been informed of the danger they were in on Monday; by Tuesday the town had been surveyed and stakes had been placed where the sand bag barrio would need to be built. I learned that the black line on the stake told where the level had to be to be 4 inches higher than the highway, meaning the water would have to flow east, and not west further into town. If it was painted orange at the top meant that the stake was too short to show the appropriate level.
Let me tell you, four feet of sand bag dike is a lot of work, but by the time I got there at sundown on Wednesday, they had accomplished a lot. Tractors with front end loaders delivered pallets of bags to the work stations; the weight of such traffic had reduced the streets to mush and people’s lawns to pudding – something you don’t think of when you’re watching it on tv.
Neither do you think of the “sand burn” along the inside of your forearms from the constant movement of the rough material over your skin all day long. The sore shoulders and back are easy to imagine, but the skin rash? The soaked feet from water in your boots? The mosquitoes the size of pterodactyls?
Shortly after I arrived there was a helicopter flying over. Its presence gave the feeling that people who know about things like floods were on top of things, but as time went on it was frustrating that what they saw from the sky never filtered out to the people doing the work. The townspeople had been told that there would be a significant surge at one point, but no one was sure when that was supposed to happen ... afternoon? Evening? Night. Tomorrow?
It made for a restless night. With the roar of the pumper trucks and the uncertainty of what was happening out in the dark sleep was hard to come by.
The sun came up on a much different scene than what had greeted the day before. The trucks had taken the high water mark from halfway across the church parking lot down to the ditch being almost empty. Unfortunately the town’s first line of defence, a hastily built berm, was beginning to leak with the water pressure behind it. It was decided to do a controlled breach and refill the ditch where the trucks could continue to pump it away. This worked for a while but they had another crisis later on when the soggy dike failed again. This time the gap was filled with large round flax bales which have managed to hold the flow to what the pumps can handle. Benson appears to be out of the woods – or in this case, the water.
As of Saturday afternoon the long line of pumper trucks have been replaced by two gigantic pumps provided by Enbridge.