In the northern section of Manitoba’s Whiteshell Provincial Park, lakeside properties are surrounded by walls of white sandbags, holding back rising water levels. For a few cottages, garages, and boathouses, it’s already too late. Water laps against the sides of the structures. This is the most severe flooding the area’s experienced in recent memory.
“We’re probably in about day 30 since [the flooding] started. The most severe stuff is more recent, but the flooding started at least a month ago,” says Kerry Davies, a cottager on Betula Lake and a past president of the Whiteshell Cottagers Association. “It’s unbelievable.”
Since April 1, the Whiteshell Lakes area has been bombarded by record-level precipitation. A cold winter and high amounts of snow accumulation between November and March exacerbated the situation. Plus, the Lake of the Woods Control Board has kept its dam fully open since early spring in an attempt to mitigate severe flooding happening around Kenora, Ont. The extra water caused the Winnipeg River to swell from 27,000 cubic feet per second to 110,000 cubic feet per second between April 1 and May 20, feeding into Whiteshell’s lake chain.
On May 20, Manitoba’s Ministry of Environment, Climate, and Parks declared a state of local emergency in Whiteshell Provincial Park due to the rapidly rising water levels. At that time, the province also issued an evacuation order for residents near Betula Lake, stating that highways in the area were flooding, making travel conditions treacherous.
As of May 24, the province expanded the evacuation order to include Sylvia Lake, Eleanor Lake, Otter Falls, Barrier Bay, and Nutimik Lake.
“The province is concerned that if people stayed or tried to stay and then needed an emergency vehicle or an ambulance, there’s no way to get in,” Davies says. “This newest evacuation order is based on the fact that they’re afraid the roads are going to get cut off.”
Of the 3,400 cottages in Whiteshell Provincial Park, 603 are affected by the evacuation order. Davies is one of those cottagers. From what he’s been told by park staff, his cottage is safe from damage, but he’s unable to access the property and check for himself.
“I have a lot of sympathy for those in the Winnipeg River area right now. I just can’t imagine spending a week sandbagging your place and then having to leave it because of the evacuation order,” he says. “I can understand what the province is doing, but as a cottage owner, I just can’t imagine having to leave it and hope.”
On May 20, Manitoba Hydro said in a statement that water levels will continue to rise for the next 10 to 15 days. A troubling prediction for property owners in the area. Nutimik Lake is already two and a half metres above its average water level, a stark change from 2021’s drought. “Last year, Nutimik Lake was three feet (one metre) below average. And at the exact same time last year, we had wildfires breaking out all over the place in the park,” Davies says.
It’s unlikely that any of the cottages will be swept away by the flooding as the water doesn’t hold a strong current, but the structures are at risk of water damage. To assist property owners, the Manitoba government sent a sandbagging machine to Whiteshell Provincial Park, thousands of pre-filled sandbags, and 1,000 feet of tiger tubes to contain water along sections of Nutimik Lake. “Additional flood fighting equipment will be made available as needed,” the province said in a statement.
The province has also sent Manitoba Wildfire Service personnel to help with sandbagging efforts, and a water rescue team, medics, and park staff are checking in on evacuated properties. Plus, the province has organized accommodations for those forced to evacuate their primary residences.
Manitoba Hydro forecasts that the Winnipeg River should crest in early June, causing water levels to start dropping. In the meantime, the province said it will continue to coordinate resources, road closures, evacuations, and a communication strategy to support the affected communities.
“There’s so much water out there. It’s overwhelming,” said Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson during a press conference, after taking a helicopter tour of the affected areas on May 24. “We’ve got water coming from the south of us, we’ve got water coming from the east of us. We’re surrounded by it.”