Red River Floodway

Winnipeg, Manitoba

Photo Credits: Wikipedia



Research by: Samantha Miller

Edited by: Nicole Brekelmans

Case study compiled in 2019


Project: Red River Floodway

Type of Urban Strategy: Water

Type of ProjectFlood Protection Infrastructure

LocationWinnipeg, Manitoba

Date Designed/Planned: 1962

Construction Completed: 2014

Designer: City of Winnipeg, HTFC


Winnipeg and its surrounding regions have had a long history of massive floods, ever since 1826. Governments at all levels have invested millions of dollars in flood protection infrastructure, to minimize the risk of devastating damage to Winnipeg. The Red River Floodway is the second-largest earthmoving infrastructure project in the world, next to the Panama Canal. The Floodway is estimated to have prevented billions of dollars in potential damage in Winnipeg since it was initially built in 1962. In 2005, the Province invested hundreds of millions in expanding the Floodway to accommodate for and protect Winnipeg from a 1-in-700-year flood. In addition to the expansion of the Floodway, HTFC was hired to conceive a landscaping design plan for the Floodway’s surrounding areas. 


Although this project has been a topic of controversy, it has been a significant milestone in the protection of Winnipeg. The project is representative of the Canadian tradition in cooperation between all levels of government to protect and sustain the growth of Canadian communities. The landscaping plan includes recreational trails, vegetation improvements, and consists of the largest tall-grass restoration projects in North America. This case study is quite different from the other case studies relating to water because it doesn’t aim to reinforce the connection between people and the waterfront. It does quite the opposite; it was not designed to bring people to water or as a gathering place. Its sole purpose is the protection and prevention of the impact of disastrous natural forces.


The Red River Floodway project, also known as ‘Duff’s Ditch’, is the second-largest earthmoving project in the world, second to the Panama Canal. It is one of the most critical flood protection measures in Manitoba, protecting the City of Winnipeg from catastrophic floods since 1968. The original floodway was built between 1962 and 1968, and in 2005, the Red River Floodway Expansion project was started, which was intended to protect the city from a one-in-700-year flood. Since 1968, the City of Winnipeg reports that the floodway has prevented the City of Winnipeg from spending tens of billions of dollars in flood damage repair projects (Province of Manitoba, n.d.). The Red River floodway is viewed as a representation of the Canadian tradition in which all levels of the government cooperate to establish engineering works that would help to overcome natural disasters or the unpredictability of nature, to create and/or sustain the growth of communities in threatened communities, and to protect communities from natural disasters (Passfield, 2001-2002). After the expansion of the Red River Floodway was completed, the Manitoba Floodway Authority (MFA) hired HTFC to develop a plan for realistic, community-supported recreational and economic opportunities along the floodway. The plan involves vegetation management strategies and one of the most significant tall-grass prairie restoration projects in North America. This is a 100-year strategy that involves food production, agro-forestry, carbon sequestration, habitat restoration, and more (HTFC. n.d.).


The original floodway that was completed in 1968 cost $63 million, but in 2005, the Government of Canada and Province of Manitoba invested $628 million to expand the floodway. The original budget for the expansion project was $665 million and was cost-shared equally between the Government of Canada and the Province of Manitoba. However, the overall project budget is estimated to be $38 million below budget. The funding for this project came from the Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund and the Building Canada Fund - Major Infrastructure Component. Because of the surplus of funds that were not used for the expansion, Manitoba started a few new projects that further provide flood protection services, in seven communities across Manitoba (Province of Manitoba, 2014).


Metropolitan Winnipeg is located about 60 miles upstream of Lake Winnipeg, in the basin of former Lake Agassiz which was a glacial lake from the Pleistocene. This lake once covered most of southern Manitoba, being one of the flattest areas in North America, now sloping slowly towards North Dakota. It is drained by the Red River, which starts in Wahpeton, North Dakota and meanders over 550 river miles to Lake Winnipeg. The basin consists of a rich organic soil of silt and heavy clay known as “Manitoba Gumbo”, which does not absorb a high amount of rainfall. The weather in Manitoba is unpredictable, which leads to extreme flooding, usually caused by a combination of rainy autumns followed by severe early frost, a winter with extremely heavy snowfall, a late spring thaw, and then a prolonged rainfall during spring-summer. Since the earliest of recorded time, the weather of Manitoba has caused floods in significant portions of the upper Red River Valley south of Winnipeg, about once every ten years, and even more frequently since the construction of the floodway. (Passfield, 2001-2002). In 2005, with the help and technology of the Canadian Hydraulics Centre of the National Research Council, a flood simulator was unveiled at the Manitoba Clean Environment Commission’s public hearing process. The flood simulation was designed to demonstrate various Red River Flood scenarios that will help to inform the public about the benefits of the expansion projects. The simulator can illustrate the impact of a 1-in-700-year flood on the city with the original infrastructure, and how the flood would impact the city after the expansion project. The simulation uses sophisticated computer software and was able to show that the impacts of a flood this side would result in approximately two-thirds of Winnipeg being impacted by basement and overland flooding. The simulation highlighted that if there were to be an expansion to the floodway, flooding in Winnipeg would be dramatically reduced to only a few potentially isolated sites along the Red River (Province of Manitoba, n.d.).


One of the first issues regarding the Floodway was that upstream residents were experiencing additional flooding after the operation of the Floodway, ultimately increasing their risk of being flooded in future extreme events. Also, the unpredictability of the weather was a great challenge, as they discovered that their method of calculating “natural” flows didn't accurately measure wind set up on some of the dykes (Province of Manitoba | Report on 1997 Red River Floodway Operations, 1997). Additionally, the operation of the Floodway is somewhat controversial as it can be a delicate balance between protecting Winnipeg and putting communities outside the diversion at risk. The Manitoba Water Stewardship enforces the Water Resources Administration Act which comprises four rules that help dictate this delicate balance. The first rule is ‘normal operation’ which governs most floods, saying that the Floodway can be used to hold the river to 7.47 meters at the James Station, which saves Winnipeg from significant flooding and keeps areas outside of Winnipeg from reaching unnatural levels. The second rule is ‘major flood’ which is controversial because it somewhat protects Winnipeg, but allows areas south of Winnipeg to exceed natural water levels; the rule was employed during the 1997 flood, resulting in damages of about $450 million. However, since the expansion project has occurred, the channel has a much larger capacity and can accommodate a larger, one-in-700-year flood. The third rule is ‘extreme flood’ which is beyond a 700-year event where the Floodway has reached its maximum capacity. In this scenario, there is not a lot that the Floodway can do to control the water, other than divert as much water with the only purpose of reducing as much damage to Winnipeg as possible. Lastly, the fourth rule is ‘summer flooding’ which allows the province to operate the Floodway to minimize the risk of basement flooding in Winnipeg, subsequently reducing the associated health risks and damages. The reason this rule is crucial is that the effectiveness of Winnipeg’s stormwater and sewage systems decline as river levels rise. Rule four also permits the activation of the Floodway at 4.57 meters at James Station if heavy rain appears to be in the forecast. However, rule four activation means that upstream communities will have water levels beyond the natural (Bell, 2011). One potential issue that was most notably observed in 2009 and 2010 was the growth of willows in the floodway channel. In the following years, the Manitoba Floodway Authority mowed a lot of willows, which made a noticeable difference in the efficiency of the Floodway (Province of Manitoba | Red River Floodway Operation Report, 2011).


The Mission Statement of the Manitoba Floodway & East Side Road Authority highlights a few of their main goals as: -Providing maximum flood protection to the most amount of people while respecting the environment and Manitoba’s neighbours. -Providing excellent project management through sound financial management, achieving project guidelines, following an inclusive people management philosophy, maximizing economic benefits, and encouraging innovation. -Setting a world-class example of how large infrastructure projects can remain respectful of Aboriginal people and the environment -Managing the construction of all proposed all-weather roads along the east side of Lake Winnipeg to maximize economic development potential for communities, generating sustainable and recognizable improvements in their economic standard of living. (Province of Manitoba | Manitoba Floodway Authority - Annual Report, 2012). The Red River Floodway Greenway, by HTFC, is meant to be “a living complement to the Floodways bold engineering, showcasing at an unprecedented scale how natural processes can be harnessed to solve a multitude of problems and add value over time” (HTFC, n.d.).


Ever since the earliest days of settlements in 1826, Winnipeg and its vicinity have been experiencing severe floods. The 1826 flood exceeded a peak discharge of about four times the capacity of the natural river at that time (roughly 225,000 cubic feet per second). This flooding was causing plenty of hardship for residents of rural Manitoba, to the point at which the Canadian Pacific Railway was advocating avoiding the new city of Winnipeg because of the danger of future floods (Province of Manitoba | Report on 1997 Red River Floodway Operations, 1997). In July, after the flood in 1950, the Greater Winnipeg Dyking Board was established dykes to provide more capacity in the rivers through the city. Later that year, the Federal Government set up the Red River Basin Investigation. The investigation evaluated potential measures that could reduce flood hazard in the Greater Winnipeg Area. This study ended up creating the foundation for the flood control structures and channels that are present today (Province of Manitoba | Report on 1997 Red River Floodway Operations, 1997). In 2003, there were reports and agreements in the process of being put in place, outlining the need for an expansion to the Floodway. At this point, the Floodway had been used more than 20 times in which it safely diverted flows around Winnipeg. They had estimated that the design from 45 years prior would only represent a 1-in-90-year flood, but the Floodway would increase security up to 1-in-700-year magnitudes. This was said to reduce the potential for the city to flood by a factor of almost 5 (Province of Manitoba - Conservation | Red River Floodway Expansion, 2003).


The floodway consists of a 47-km long channel that diverts parts of the Red River’s water flow to the East and discharges it back into the Red River near Lockport, in the event of a flood (Manitoba Historical Society, n.d.). By using hydraulics technology and massive earthworks, the designers were able to figure out a way to divert the natural forces of the water and redirect it to protect Winnipeg. The Intake Control Structures are located south of Winnipeg, and have gates that control the floodwaters from upriver, directing it down the channel and toward the exit spillway of the Outlet Control Structure north of the city, where the water rejoins the Red River near its delta (The Canadian Register of Historic Places, n.d.). On March 31, 2008, the floodway achieved its ultimate goal in protecting the area from a one-in-700-year flood. This goal was achieved through a combination of a known three factors, including channel excavation, removal of the bridge girders on the CP Keewatin and Emerson Railway Bridges, and progress on the construction of the Outlet Control Structure. The decision to excavate the floodway channel helped to increase the floodway’s capacity from 60,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) to 140,000 cfs. Adding two new highway bridges into the expansion project was because the project was scheduled to come in under budget (Province of Manitoba | Manitoba Floodway Authority - Annual Report, 2009). In June of 2008, the MFA brought together a group of consultants to develop a plan for a landscape and recreation plan along the expanded floodway. In this process, the consultants met with recreational users, non-governmental organizations, local municipalities, and other organizations to create the Opportunities Concept Plan. The plan includes: -a multi-use and all-season trail along the floodway - a tree planting, re-vegetation, and landscape plan for the floodway -staging areas for recreational activity -low-level crossing across the channel -community gardens -signage and a nature interpretation program (Manitoba Floodway Authority, 2009). In April of 2009, the Province of Manitoba introduced a new bill (Bill 31) known as the Manitoba Floodway Authority Amendment Act, which expands the mandate to include the management of the construction of an all-season road on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. After this, the East Side Road Authority Inc. (ESRA) was established to help move things forward. This mandate and the ESRA were established to respond to feedback from the First Nations communities that live in this area, and their need for an all-season road that would connect these areas and improve their access and economic development opportunities. This initiative helped to construct an all-season road from Provincial Road #304 near Manigotagan to Bloodvein First Nations, and through to Berens River First Nations, comprising a total road length of 170 km (Manitoba Floodway Authority, 2009).


Landscape architect and planning firm, Hilderman Thomas Frank Cram (HTFC), led the process of developing the Opportunities Concept Plan, which outlined possible landscape and recreation opportunities to coincide with the expanded floodway. PCL Constructors Canada Ltd. was awarded the estimated $14.7 million contract for the expansion project to build the new bridge over the floodway on PTH #44 (Manitoba Floodway Authority, 2009).


The Red River Floodway is recognized internationally as a National Historic Civil Engineering Site and is considered one amongst the world’s 16 engineering marvels (Province of Manitoba, n.d.). In 2002, the Red River Floodway was designated a National Historic Site of Canada, for its outstanding engineering achievement in function and impact. The Red River Floodway Greenway, designed by HTFC, received a National Honour Award from CSLA in 2011 (HTFC, n.d.). Aside from national recognition and awards, the floodway project and the expansion project have both provided thousands of people with jobs and provided work for over 120 companies. Within this realm, the MFA created an Aboriginal Set-Aside Initiative in which they have awarded million-dollar contracts that generate jobs and economic opportunities for Aboriginal people (Manitoba Floodway Authority, 2009).


Six major floods have notably occurred in the Red River Valley, beginning in 1826. The 1826 flood was the largest known in the Red River Valley, which has an estimated 40% higher peak discharge compared to the iconic flood of 1997. This event devastated the developing Red River Settlement at the time, caused the German and des Meurons settlers to leave the area, and led to the relocation of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s headquarters from Upper Fort Garry to Lower Fort Garry. In 1950, an extensive flood protection system was implemented because of the scale of the 1826 flood, when they could have implemented a less extensive and less expensive system. However, ultimately, the large system ended up slightly preventing more catastrophic damage in the 1997 flood (Province of Manitoba | Historic Flood - 1826, n.d.). After 1862, the next largest flood was in 1950, with the flooding of the Red River Valley and Winnipeg due to the melting of heavy snow and heavy rainfall. The levels stayed above the flood stage for 51 days, causing the province to declare a state of emergency and brought in the Canadian Army and Red Cross to protect property and evacuate residents. At this time, 100,000 residents (which was about one-third of Winnipeg) were evacuated from their homes; the largest evacuation in Canadian history until the Mississauga train derailment in 1979. The flood is estimated to have resulted in $125.5 million in damages, which is equivalent to about $1 billion in today’s figures (Province of Manitoba | Historic Flood - 1950, n.d.). The next flood occurred after the floodway was constructed in 1979, putting the Red River Floodway to its first major test. The flow was roughly equivalent to the flood in 1850, but the floodway was able to limit the Red River water level to 5.8 meters when it could have reached approximately 9.2 meters. Dikes protected some areas, however many regions around Winnipeg were still forced to evacuate (Province of Manitoba | Historic Flood - 1979, n.d.). Then in 1997, Manitoba’s Red River Valley saw the most severe flood since 1850, directly affecting Winnipeg and about 25 other towns and cities. The dry summer of 1996 was followed by heavy rain in the fall, which increased soil moisture creating a high possibility for a flood. The winter of 1996 was very long and cold, with heavy snow leading to heavy melting in mid-April. Over 7,000 military personnel were employed for help in evacuating about 25,450 residents, and an estimated 1,000 homes were damaged. It is said that the Red River crested at about 7.4 meters at the James Avenue Pumping Station, but without the flood control works, the crest would have been at 10.5 meters (Province of Manitoba | Historic Flood - 1997, n.d.). The next flood was in the spring of 2009, which was the fourth-highest on the Red River since 1826. It was caused by a heavy rainstorm and a high level of ground frost which kept the ground from absorbing the rain. The flood was worse due to unusual ice conditions which caused blocks in the drainage system, and ice jams. The floodway is said to have reduced the river crest from a potential 9.9 meters to 6.9 meters at the James Avenue Pumping Station. The success of this flood was the protection provided by the operation of the major flood control infrastructures, such as the Red River Floodway, the Portage Diversion and the Shellmouth Reservoir, which prevented billions of dollars in damage. Only about 250 homes were damaged during this time, compared to 1000 in the previous major flood of 1997 (Province of Manitoba | Historic Flood - 2009, n.d.). Lastly, in late October 2010, southern Manitoba was within a millimetre of having its wettest year on record. In April 2011, the heavy snowfall and soil frost penetration meant that the meltwater was expected to cause a flood. Manitoba declared a high flood risk for six rivers, including two that pass through Winnipeg. However, the Red River Floodway was able to help prevent significant damage to the city and surrounding areas. In late May, Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg, among a few, reached record water levels, forcing hundreds of residents and cottage owners to evacuate. This flood has some of the highest water levels and flows in modern history, reaching into parts of Saskatchewan, known by engineers as the one-in-2000-year event flood. The Government of Canada, Province of Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg spent about $1 billion on flood fighting and compensation. About 7,100 Manitobans were displaced from their homes, and millions of hectares of farmland were flooded. States of emergency were declared in 70 communities, 850 roads were closed including parts of the Trans-Canada Highway, and thousands of emergency measures officials and volunteers were employed (Province of Manitoba | Historic Flood - 2011, n.d.). The MFA acknowledged the need for a landscape plan that thinks beyond just the floodways sole stormwater functions, after many lobbying efforts by advocate groups. As part of the expansion of the 2400 hectare landscape, HTFC was hired to create this landscape plan (HTFC, n.d.).


Canada, Manitoba Floodway Authority. (n.d.). 2009 Annual Report. Province of Manitoba. Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Canada, Manitoba Floodway & East Side Road Authority. (n.d.). 2012 Annual Report. Province of Manitoba. Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Canadian Register of Historic Places | Red River Floodway National Historic Site of Canada. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Goldsborough, G. (2017, November 19). Red River Floodway - Inlet Control Structure (Winnipeg). Retrieved July 31, 2019, from HTFC | Red River Floodway Greenway. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Passfield, R. W. (2001-2002). “Duff’s Ditch”: The Origins, Construction, and Impact of the Red River Floodway. Manitoba History, 42. Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Province of Manitoba | Historic Flood - 1826. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Province of Manitoba | Historic Flood - 1950. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Province of Manitoba | Historic Flood - 1979. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Province of Manitoba | Historic Flood - 1997. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Province of Manitoba | Historic Flood - 2009. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Province of Manitoba | Historic Flood - 2011. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Province of Manitoba | Red River Floodway. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Canada, Province of Manitoba Conservation. (2003). Red River Floodway Expansion - Project Description. Province of Manitoba. Red River Floodway Expansion Project Completed Under Budget. (2014, March 18). Province of Manitoba - News Releases. Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Canada, Ecological Services Division, Manitoba Water Stewardship. (n.d.). Red River Floodway Operation Report - Spring 2011. Province of Manitoba. Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Canada, Water Management and Structures, Hydrologic Forecasting and Water Management Branch - Manitoba Infrastructure. (n.d.). Red River Floodway Operation Report - Spring 2017. Province of Manitoba. Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Robert, C. H., Howard, C. D., & Mackenzie, J. N. (n.d.). Report on the 1997 Red River Floodway Operations(Canada, North Ritchot Restoration Committee). Province of Manitoba. Retrieved July 31, 2019, from
Canada, Manitoba Floodway Authority. (n.d.). The Red River Floodway Expansion Project. Province of Manitoba. Retrieved July 31, 2019, from


The Manitoba Infrastructure regional maintenance staff perform annual brush clearing in the floodway channel, to ensure it is maintained to acceptable levels of efficiency (Province of Manitoba | Red River Floodway Operation Report, 2017). Also, during the construction of the expansion for the Red River Floodway, the MFA established a toll-free, 24/7 phone line in which individuals could call and report issues related to their water supply. The phone line is part of the MFA’s groundwater management program (Manitoba Floodway Authority, 2009).