Farmers downstream of Shellmouth Dam hope to avoid flooding this year

Farmers downstream of Shellmouth Dam hope to avoid flooding this year

Lowering reservoir levels has created ‘lots of room’ behind the dam while inflow levels are far below what they were two years ago

Despite rising spring temperatures and plenty of snowpack left to melt on the upper reaches of the Assiniboine River basin in Saskatchewan, farmers downstream of the Shellmouth Dam are hopeful they won’t see a repeat of last summer’s crop-destroying deluge.

So far, provincial officials appear to be doing a better job this year, said Cliff Trinder, a rancher near Millwood who has followed the operation of the reservoir very closely for decades.

“They’ve probably done about all they can do with it,” said Trinder. “They’ve lowered it to unprecedented levels, and they’re letting out as much as they can considering downstream interests.”

Even though much of the snowpack still remains, there’s less risk of a 2011-scale flood, said Steve Topping, executive director of hydrologic forecasting and water management for the province.

Inflows to Shellmouth are expected to stay below 11,000 cubic feet per second this year — well below the 20,000-plus rate of two years ago. Officials also brought the reservoir level down to 1,382 feet above sea level, or almost 30 feet below the spillway level, prior to spring.

“Our best guess is that Shellmouth will manage it. We might go over the spillway marginally, but it’s looking like the reservoir will trim the peak substantially,” said Topping, who is in charge of managing the dam.

Last week, outflows were bumped up to around 1,500 cubic feet per second after the level was allowed to rise four feet to benefit the lake’s fishery.

Ironically, the heavy snowpack this year may work in the farmers’ favour by allowing the ground underneath to thaw faster and absorb more of the snowmelt, he added.

“The per cent of the snowpack that is infiltrating into the ground is much higher than normal,” said Topping.

For farmers downstream wondering whether to seed low-lying areas along the Assiniboine, Topping couldn’t offer much in the way of assurances, saying that the risk of summer rainfall events like those seen in 2012 are ever present.

Stan Cochrane, who farms along the Assiniboine near Griswold, said that it’s still too early to predict what the upcoming growing season will bring. There’s so much snow in some parts of Saskatchewan, he added, that a summer flood is still a possibility.

As for his valley acres, he’ll seed his crops as soon as it’s dry enough to get on the fields.

“We’ll just seed them and collect crop insurance,” said Cochrane. “We’ve always said that they’ll do anything to protect Winnipeg and not worry about us. It’s pretty evident that that’s the plan.”

Virden-area farmer Keith Pearn also said he plans to seed whatever land is ready, too.

He’s heartened by “lots of room behind the dam,” but not impressed by talk of restricting flows early on and increasing them later — a situation that he argues constitutes artificial flooding.

“I had a good feeling about last year, but what happened to us at the end of June and July was unbelievable,” said Pearn.

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