Old-timers recall the dirty thirties when farmers put up hay on a bone-dry Oak Lake and shipped it by rail to their parched counterparts in Saskatchewan as part of a relief effort.
This spring, Saskatchewan is repaying the debt in water – lots of it.
There’s so much water flowing in from Pipestone Creek that Oak Lake has risen by a good two feet, and water is now slopping over its banks into the nearby Plum Lakes and surrounding marshes.
Rick Plaisier, reeve of Sifton municipality, said that a dam on the southeast side of Oak Lake that was built in the 1950s is “still holding,” and about four inches of water are flowing over top.
Even before the flood, there were concerns the structure was decrepit, and local officials had been lobbying the province for about a decade to have it replaced or upgraded.
“We have concerns that all this water is going to put additional stress on it,” said Plaisier, adding that the flow over the dam is only being mitigated by the extreme high levels in the Plum Lakes marshes on the other side.
A long earthen dike that leads to the dam from the resort is also being shored up with dirt and truckloads of boulders, but that is a “temporary measure” until a permanent solution for the dike and dam is agreed upon.
Cottagers have rushed to sandbag their idyllic retreats under the shady oaks, and the lapping waves have eaten a chunk out of the resort’s main beach.
Apart from concerns about shoreline erosion among cottage owners on the lakeshore, cattle producers are suffering from lost pasture land and prospects for a reduced hay crop due to flooding.
“We have quarter sections of land in the southern part of the marsh that produced hay last year that are now under four feet of water,” said Plaisier.
Ed Jiggens, a retired hay producer who lives just southeast of the lake, was busy May 17 adding a third sump pump in an effort to keep his basement dry.
His hay land this year was “99 per cent water,” he said, adding that he’d have only about 100 acres in total to rent out.
“It’s going higher, they tell me,” said Jiggens. “It’s the worst flood we’ve seen in the history of this area.”
The hay crop in the lakeside marshlands is variable from year to year, he said. In wet years, the mowers go after the “fine” hay on the high ground, and in dry years, the slough hay is available for cutting.
It’s hard to find a bright spot amid the deluge, he said. Unlike a flood plain, where the receding waters leave nutrients and sediments that boost the next year’s crop, in the sloughs, the hay crop takes a few years to come back after a wet year.
Where the water is very deep, the bulrushes take over. Then, when it dries up, thistles and foxtail appear before the more preferred hay species come back.
“There won’t be any slough hay – I’ll guarantee you that – and there might not be too much fine hay, either,” said Jiggens.
Area gardeners have been observing a curious twist in underground hydrology this spring – their plots appear to be getting flooded out by water oozing up from underground.
Judging by the water in his son’s basement which has gone up about 2-1/2 feet since last fall, Lloyd Atchison, chair of the Oak Lake aquifer monitoring committee, said the underground lake that stretches from Reston to Souris and nearly to Griswold, is probably near peak levels, and in some areas, is already above ground.
Atchison said that a meeting earlier this spring discussed how the aquifer was well on its way to a full recharge due to heavy rainfall last fall – well before this spring’s run off even began.
For the Atchison family ranch that means 600 acres of hay land will be off limits, and probably another 300 acres of pasture, too.
The neighbours – no pun intended – are in the same boat, he added.
“If you multiply that by 15 or 20 guys, and that’s a lot of acres,” said Atchison. “Compared to the guys in the Interlake, it’s not a disaster, but I’d use the term ‘really wet’ for this local piece.”
Mother Nature hasn’t helped this year, but Atchison blames at least one-third of the problem on excessive drainage upstream in Saskatchewan by farmers and ranchers who in the last 30 years have torn up grasslands to put in higher-value crops.
Once, on a tour in the mid- 1990s, he listened as a man complained that the culvert on his land was “too small” to drain fast enough to begin field work by late April each year.
“That was by April 24, not May 24,” said Atchison. “We’ve got to get rid of that attitude.”
Drainage licensing practices need to start considering spillover effects farther downstream, he added, not just a mile away, but even farther.
Dean Brooker, manager of the West Souris Conservation District, said that although monitoring stations are distributed throughout the aquifer, current data on groundwater levels is not available.
However, he added that March figures show that heavier- than-usual rains last spring, summer and fall recharged the aquifer considerably, and March 14 data shows it one metre over the long-term average.
The Oak Lake aquifer is not the largest in the province, but it is unique in terms of its purity and proximity to the surface, he added.
daniel. [email protected]
– Ed Jiggens