“It was truly like something you would watch on TV,” said Karen Von Bargen, who ranches with her husband Craig.
Amazed by the force of the sudden deluge, they clung to fences as they scrambled to rescue 100 feeder pigs, calves, horses and donkeys from their corrals.
Most of their livestock either swam or was dragged to higher ground, but as of last week, the effect of the icy waters had already claimed a dozen calves that fell sick in the days afterward.
The culprit, say the Von Bargens, is widespread drainage to the south on farmland along the four-mile stretch that lies between their ranch and the highlands of Riding Mountain National Park.
Even though they live two miles away from the Wilson River, and are about 45 feet above it, the removal of the land’s flood water buffering capacity has increased to the point that their yard is now at risk of freak, sudden spring melt conditions.
Water that used to take three to four weeks to drain off, now can rush towards them in as little as eight hours.
“The water comes off the hills and the farmers don’t like it sitting on their fields,” said Craig. “Every year it gets worse. We see a faster rate of water go through, but this year took the cake.”
Drainage of large sloughs and an array of dikes, diversions, and channels built in recent years has sped up the flow of water that comes off a 140-foot grade from the park.
The flood arrived suddenly at about 2:30 p.m., then started to recede by about 8 p.m. By the next morning, the water was back in its natural run.
Most of their 200 head of cattle were out of the yard, with only a few cows and calves in the pens. One herd of cattle in an area to the south of the yard was forced to swim to safety as the rushing torrent about one-eighth of a mile wide and about three to five feet deep swept through.
“Thank God most of them were out on the quarter section,” said Craig. “It was just like a river with a current.”
The Von Bargens gave senior officials from the RM of Gilbert Plains and Manitoba Water Stewardship a tour of the damage, but they’re not optimistic that compensation will be forthcoming.
“We have EMO forms to fill out but it doesn’t look very promising,” said Craig.
Karen estimated the damage at $500,000, after tallying up the cost of a ruined outdoor wood furnace, 1,000 soaked round hay bales, a flooded machine shop, and dead calves.
“Landowners and especially farmers are supposed to be keepers of the land,” said Karen. “We should leave the buffer areas such as trees, fencelines, sloughs, and natural runs alone as nature intended.”
RM of Gilbert Plains Reeve Jim Michaluk said that the drainage situation in the area has worsened over the years to the point that the spring melt is now overwhelming existing infrastructure in a matter of hours when in the past it took weeks.
“You’re trying to force all this water through all these little pipes and they can’t do it so it just goes into overland flooding,” said Michaluk.
Lack of enforcement of drainage regulations by Water Stewardship on private property is to blame, he said, adding that numerous letters of complaint sent to provincial government officials haven’t been adequately addressed.
“We can do our own little things along ditches, but we can’t do anything on private property,” said Michaluk.
Limited jurisdiction for undertaking repair work is a problem common to many rural municipalities, he added. In one case, his RM had everything arranged it needed to fix a washed out road from 2011, but without consent from a provincial engineer, the work couldn’t proceed.
“All the materials were waiting,” he said. “But it never got done and now the road is twice as bad.”