Floods drain Assiniboine farmers

Judging from the view of water covering a broad, green meadow of seeded cropland on both sides of the Assiniboine River here, the flood of 2012 is already underway.

Near the town of Shellmouth, a little farther downstream, tiny canola plants are poking up through the mud of a broad flood plain. In the lower spots, only the tops of fence posts are visible.

The flood comes as no surprise for rancher Cliff Trinder, whose riverside hayfields near Millwood have been flooded more than a dozen times since 2005.

Even if the interminable showers of the past week were to cease, a flood on the scale of 2010 is already baked into the cake, he said last week.

Water levels on Lake of the Prairies hit 1,412.5 feet above sea level last Thursday, up from 1,410 the week before, when two feet of water was flowing over the Shellmouth Dam’s spillway. Data from Water Stewardship showed outflows from the dam had soared to 5,690 cubic feet per second, a sharp increase over the previous week’s 2,040 cfs. Inflows to the reservoir had also jumped to 7,800 cfs from 4,600 cfs the week prior.

Trinder says that could mean millions of dollars in damage is coming to the 50,000 acres of highly productive agricultural lands downstream over the coming weeks.

“We’re in the mirror image of 2010. They are going to end up losing the whole valley from here to Brandon,” he said last Wednesday afternoon.

“Between crop insurance and special payments, that’s 30 million bucks.”

It could have been prevented, he added. A member of the Shellmouth Dam regulation liaison committee, Trinder participated in an April conference call that aims for a “consensus” in setting Shellmouth levels.

The farmers downstream sought a lower water level behind Shellmouth, but their concerns were overruled by irrigators and municipal officials, who feared a drought might leave the Assiniboine watershed short of water.

“We protested vigorously, but we were told there wasn’t a chance in hell of a flood,” said Trinder.

Preventable?

Last year’s epic flood, which saw his lands adjacent to the river under water well into August, was simply a case of too much water everywhere. It couldn’t have been prevented, he said.

But he believes that this year’s deluge, just as in 2010, is the result of mismanagement of the Shellmouth Dam.

Two years ago, similar fears that the reservoir would fall too low saw the gates closed for 58 days beginning in April. By May 1, it was full. Then the skies opened up with spring rains, and the flood of 2010 began.

Stan Cochrane, who farms along the Assiniboine near Griswold, where the river is much wider, wasn’t flooded “too badly” in 2010.

“But I think it’s going to be higher than 2010,” he said.

He, along with Trinder, called for the Shellmouth reservoir levels to be lowered in spring on the same stakeholder conference call, but fears of a water shortage in the 56-km-long reservoir carried the day.

Potatoes more important?

Although the Shellmouth Dam was originally built in 1972 to control flooding on the Assiniboine, Cochrane believes that provincial government officials ruled in favour of the potato industry.

“They believe that water conservation is more important than flood control,” he said. “Things change, don’t they?”

Despite continually bearing the brunt of Shellmouth outflows, Cochrane said that Assiniboine Valley farmers have never been fairly compensated, even though the Shellmouth Dam Act of 2011 has pledged 100 per cent compensation for “man-made flooding” on the watershed.

The definition of man-made flooding under the act, he added, is “more water coming out of the reservoir than is going in.”

Last year, that happened three times, but because his fields were already under water, the province denied compensation because the damage was already done.

“They are going to say the same thing this year. Before they get the dam back under control again, we’re already going to be flooded,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘If you get flooded a little more, what difference does that make?’”

The provincial spokesperson confirmed that position, citing the fact that inflows this year have exceeded outflows. “In other words, if Shellmouth was not in place, downstream river levels would be much higher,” he said.

Trinder said that in the 40-year history of Shellmouth’s 390,000-acre-feet capacity reservoir, the province has never been unable to meet downstream water needs, even in times of “absolute drought.”

“They could have prevented this flood with the operation of Shellmouth Dam,” he said. “There’s no question of not enough water; they’ve got too much water.”

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