“I know some of our guys here think we’re not getting a fair shake and we’re being neglected.”
– HAROLD FOSTER
Some Interlake farmers don’t think they’re getting a fair shake when it comes to drainage.
The Manitoba government, through its Disaster Financial Aid program, kicked in $1.9 million to help several rural municipalities in the Red River Valley clear ditches plugged with eroded soil following a vicious windstorm May 16, 2008.
The affected municipalities, including the R. M. s of Dufferin, MacDonald and Morris, made the case that if the soil wasn’t quickly removed a big rainstorm could drown thousands of acres of crops worth millions of dollars.
Later that year, thousands of acres of crop and hay were flooded in the Interlake due to excessive rain, made worse by overgrown ditches.
Wet weather again this year stopped Interlake farmers from planting 193,000 acres of land, or 38 per cent of the region’s cropland. Thousands more seeded acres were damaged or destroyed by flooding. But except for a few special projects, the province isn’t helping to clean out Interlake ditches.
Presumably part of the apparent inconsistency is the definition of “disaster” and what projects qualify for aid. Ditches in the Red River Valley were functional before the windstorm filled them with topsoil, whereas ditches in the Interlake became clogged over many years and clearing them is normally a municipal responsibility.
But on the face of it, farmers in the Red River Valley received aid to prevent a possible disaster, while farmers in the Interlake failed to get much help when they were suffering through one.
“The Red River Valley seems to get special attention,” Bifrost Reeve Harold Foster said in a recent interview. “I’m not condemning anybody in the Red River Valley. They do their job and they get attention. I know some of our guys here think we’re not getting a fair shake and we’re being neglected.”
Foster noted Bifrost is getting some provincial disaster aid to help repair and replace washed-out roads and culverts.
However, there’s also no question that flooding in the Interlake the last two years was a disaster.
“Our farmers aren’t asking to be on subsidies forever,” he said. “What they’re asking for is a chance to make a living. And to do that we have to have a better drainage system.”
Bifrost alone has 700 miles of ditch and most drain into provincial drains, Foster said.
“So if their (provincial) drains aren’t clean ours aren’t going to work, however, we’ve got lots of work to do on our own drains as well,” he said.
Besides the lack of funds for ditch cleaning there’s often red tape slowing down the work. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans needs to review and approve ditch-cleaning projects faster, Foster said.
The maximum level of Lake Winnipeg should be reduced one foot to 714 feet above sea level, he added. When the lake is high water sometimes backs up the ditches into fields, he said.
Meanwhile, the local conservation district is taking an inventory of all culverts in the district and identifying the bottlenecks.
“It’s really useful information showing where a few dollars can solve a problem rather than going out and doing a whole bunch of surveys and guesswork,” Foster said.
“It’ll save us a lot of time and money I think. But that’s in the future, maybe two or three years before we complete it all. In the meantime we’re cleaning as many drains as we can.”
Cattails are the biggest problem in ditches.
“They’re just a horrible thing to deal with because if there’s moving water in the ditch you can’t spray them,” he said. “If you cut them and don’t chop them right up they’ll plug the culverts.
“The problem is you can clear them out and in three years they’re back. If you have a dip in the ditch then you’ll have cattails so now we use lasers so hopefully you don’t have any dips in the ditch and we’re hoping that will discourage the cattails a little bit.”