After two major storms, Westman farmers are surveying the damage

Torrential rains last week plunged western municipalities 
into states of emergency as flooding wreaked havoc

For Ryan Niven of Rapid City, the overrunning roads, acres upon acres of flooded crops and states of emergency popping up across the region felt a lot like 2014 all over again.

“Fortunately, we’re done spraying, so we’re not out trying to make a bunch of ruts right now, but I would say, infrastructure-wise, there’s probably more damage than there was years ago, because it all came so quick, one day right after the other, versus two inches, two inches, just sort of repeatedly,” he said.

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Why it matters: Producers were still getting a sense of crop damage after devastating floods in parts of Westman last week, but infrastructure damage might make farm operations difficult long after the water recedes.

Westman residents north of Brandon, as well as those around Neepawa along the Whitemud River, are facing what will likely become another infamous flood year after a string of storms brought well over 200 millimetres of rain, hail, high winds and a tornado touchdown between June 28 and July 2.

Niven’s own yard was among those hit by what Environment and Climate Change Canada later described as a “rain-wrapped tornado” June 28, causing bins to blow over.

Some producers near Rapid City and Rivers, Niven included, argue official rainfall totals still fall short of the reality.

Niven estimated that his farm saw around 12 inches (or 304 millimetres) by July 1, levels echoed by his neighbours.

A municipal road north of Brandon goes from dry to dramatic waterfall in the space of three hours June 29.
photo: Ron Krahn

Trent Hedley, who farms near Rivers, a few kilometres south of Rapid City, said empty pails left overnight in the middle of his yard measured 270 millimetres of water after the first storm June 28, while another rain June 30 brought another six inches (153 millimetres) of rain.

The rains created some of the wettest days on record in the region and led to unprecedented flows along the Little Saskatchewan River. Dozens of residents in Minnedosa were temporarily evacuated June 30 following the second of the string of storms.

By July 1, pressure had mounted against the Rivers dam, which holds back Lake Wahtopanah. Up to 40 properties in the municipalities of Riverdale and Whitehead were evacuated after the province announced that it had lost confidence in the structure. Farther downstream, residents and businesses along the Assiniboine River in Brandon were also warned to prepare for evacuation, should the dam let go.

The province also released a flood warning for the Whitemud River, citing peak flows expected to exceed levels in 2011, and a high-water advisory for Spruce Woods Provincial Park.

The Little Saskatchewan River creeps up towards a rail bridge in the Town of Minnedosa July 1, the day after flooding caused evacuations in the town.
photo: Alexis Stockford

The list of regions announcing states of emergency, likewise, grew as the week went on. The Municipality of Oakview announced a state of emergency June 29 in the wake of flooding and the tornado touchdown, followed days later by the Municipality of Minto-Odanah, Town of Minnedosa and Town of Neepawa.

Ag damage

It is not yet clear exactly how many crops will be flooded out, producers such as Ron Krahn of Rivers have said, although producers are generally expecting to lose at least some acres.

“It’s hard to tell right now,” he said. “There’s lots of water laying around everywhere. The damage isn’t showing up yet besides where crop is actually right under water.”

Krahn estimated about five to 10 per cent of his crops were totally under water July 1.

Animals at Minnedosa’s Bison Park are gathered in front of their now-flooded pasture
July 1.
photo: Alexis Stockford

Some flooded areas did not have any crop to drown, he noted. The region struggled with weather this spring, leaving some of those now-flooded acres unseeded.

Areas surrounding low parts of the field are in greater question.

“Lots of our crop is out of the water, it’s just very saturated,” Krahn said, “but there’s these big rings around every spot with water and it’s uncertain as to how much will be damaged.”

Commonly dubbed “pothole country,” the rolling topography of the region may have actually helped field survivability, local producers have said, while some have noted that the region was dry prior to the rains, and that remaining crop may be helped by the moisture later in the season.

Livestock producers, meanwhile, were seeking higher ground.

Dan Lepp, one of the producers evacuated downstream of the Rivers dam, was able to keep his 80 cow-calf herd on dry land so far, he said July 2, although about half his pastures and 10 per cent of his forage land were flooded.

“All our lower fences are gone or under water,” he said. “The river is just doing a huge amount of damage, taking out banks and trees and just plowing a new course and stuff like that. It’s taking out all our fences down there.”

Hedley, likewise, said his pastures were flooded, separating his herd. He did not believe he had lost any animals, although water had made it difficult to check animals.

Holding pattern

Flooding has, largely, not translated yet into crop insurance claims as producers wait for water to recede before gauging damage.

“We’re obviously well aware of the situation that’s out there, but producers are focusing on more immediate needs at this point,” said David Van Deynze, vice-president of innovation and product support with Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC).

While the municipalities of Riverdale and Oakview saw many roads totally washed out, severe washouts were also reported in surrounding areas, such as this scene east of Forrest July 1.
photo: Alexis Stockford

Fields are generally dry enough to travel on before MASC staff come out to assess damage, he said.

The corporation has fielded more calls from producers clarifying insurance details, however, he added.

Hail, while garnering less attention than the rising flood waters, has made up the bulk of claims coming out of the storms so far, Van Deynze said.

Residents near Clear Lake posted videos of thick hail on social media June 28, while Environment and Climate Change Canada reported golf ball-sized hail by Oakburn.

MASC registered about 70 hail claims between June 28 and July 2.

Those numbers actually fall short of MASC’s initial expectations, Van Deynze said, looking at the apparent severity of incidents posted to social media.

It is the second time this year that MASC has dealt with flood claims due to excess rain. In mid-June, the RM of Stuartburn in eastern Manitoba also saw significant flooding and evacuations.

MASC offices in that area reported about 50 claims, Van Deynze said, although he noted that most hard-hit areas in that case were dominated by uninsured pasture and forage lands.

“Certainly those producers are impacted. I’m not trying to minimize that,” he said, “but, it happened far enough east into that part of the province where there’s just not as much crop grown as there is in other areas, certainly like there will be or is in western Manitoba, anyway.”

Agronomic damage

Some damage in the west may also go beyond a drowned-out crop, Ray Redfern of Redfern Farm Services warned.

Redfern urged producers to consider longer-term impacts to their soil, given the amount of dirt that likely moved with the flood water.

Some of that “precious topsoil,” may have only moved in field, he said, but more than likely some has been dumped into low areas and streams, “and certainly will have taken a bit of organic matter as well as nutrient with it.”

Producers will have to get a new handle on soil nutrition levels, he said, while potato producers who just finished top dressing, himself included, must face the idea that much of that benefit may have washed downstream.

Neepawa’s green space north of Highway 16 fills with flood water July 1 after one out of a string of storms to cause flooding across western Manitoba.
photo: Alexis Stockford

“Without having done any research yet for soil samples, we would anticipate that part of that nutrient is gone, much the same as the hills on the potatoes that are growing adjacent to our own farm,” he said.

He estimates that those hills were two inches lower following the rains.

“Either some of that dirt has been washed away or it’s moved around and filled the trenches in between the potato rows, but overall, that will have impacted the potential for potatoes,” he said.

Later irrigation may also prove a challenge if producers cannot access their suddenly much more violent primary water source, he said.

Redfern himself is struggling with that last point. His own potato acres typically draw irrigation water from the Little Saskatchewan River downstream of the Rivers dam.

Infrastructure

For those who have seen their road system turn into a labyrinth of sudden chasms, and unexpected fords, infrastructure damage has been top of mind.

Many municipal roads between Brandon and Minnedosa remained impassable as of July 2, along with closures along Highway 10 north of Brandon, Highway 24 west of Rapid City, Highway 25 within Rivers, and Highway 270 between Rivers and the Trans-Canada Highway.

Those roads have created a challenge for anyone attempting to access supplies or services off the farm.

“It’s just unbelievable how many roads are not passable anymore,” Redfern said. “Some rural people are unable to, by any ordinary means, get out to any urban community.”

At the same time, he noted, closures have forced traffic onto more minor roads putting stress on the few arteries left.

Assessing field damage has been difficult, given the general inability to move through the region, Krahn said, while harvest, when producers will be looking to drive combines down some of those routes, is not that far away given the scope of the repairs.

“It’s hard to know,” he said. “I’ve been impressed other times when we’ve had storms — not this large — where there’s been a road that’s washed out and, often, they can fix it within a couple of weeks or a month or two, but this is so extensive over such a large area. I think it’s a real concern.”

Brent Fortune, reeve of the Municipality of Oakview, reported over 100 washouts in the area, about 25 of them severe.

“We’ll do our best,” he said.

“It takes time when you’re dealing with the EMO (Province of Manitoba Emergency Measures Organization),” he added. “We’ll have to sit down and prioritize our roads, which need to be done — make sure people have access from their buildings and all that and we’ll just move forward. And let’s just hope Mother Nature co-operates with us.”

There had been no word yet on provincial aid, he said.

Redfern is also worried about how that infrastructure damage will impact critical fungicide application, given the sudden moisture and heat.

As of July 2, the province’s fusarium head blight risk maps showed most of the province was at high or extreme risk, with most of western Manitoba and the northern Interlake rating the province’s highest risk class.

Those application challenges, as well as soil erosion and loss of nutrient, might impact yield potential, he said.

At the same time, Redfern said, he is not expecting the challenges of last week to do in farmers in his area.

Producers such as Hedley have since shared stories of communities banding together to sandbag properties, pump water or helping people move belongings from suddenly threatened homes.

“I’m always amazed at the resilience of farms, communities and rural communities,” Redfern said. “They seem to be able to figure out how to weather it and they help each other, of course, and those things seem to make the difference.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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