The Lake St. Martin outlet channel project may have hit hurdles, but the province says expropriation proceedings north of Lake Manitoba are going ahead as normal.
The project, which promises two channels between Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin, and then on from Lake St. Martin to Lake Winnipeg, has been a longtime promise of Manitoba’s provincial government for flood prevention.
Calls for the project hit a high point in the wake of 2011, when flood waters from the Assiniboine River helped put about three million acres’ worth of farmland under water, costing the province over $1 billion. Areas around Lake Manitoba and Portage la Prairie to the south were particularly hard hit. The province dug an emergency outlet channel between Lake St. Martin and Lake Winnipeg soon after that flood. Calls quickly emerged for that emergency outlet to be expanded and matched by another channel connecting the south end of Lake St. Martin with Lake Manitoba. The project was highlighted by both the 2011 Flood Review Task Force and Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin Regulation Review Committee two years later, but then stalled until 2015. In 2016, the issue reappeared in Premier Brian Pallister’s successful election campaign.
It looked like flood-impacted farmers were going to get their wish over the next several years. The province hosted a number of public meetings on the project between 2017 and 2019, and planning and expropriation north of Lake Manitoba got underway. The province made plans for two 23-kilometre channels between the lakes, with the first designed to handle 7,500 cubic feet per second and the northern channel expanded to 11,500 cubic feet per second, as well as a highway reroute and new water control structures.
In 2018, the province said it hoped to break ground on the project by the following fall.
The project has since faced another wave of delays. In November 2019, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that the environmental assessment developed by Stantec, the engineering firm contracted by the province, had been found wanting by federal regulators. The regulator had returned 27 pages’ worth of issues found in the report in October 2019, about two months after the report’s submission, the newspaper reported.
On Nov. 25, the province announced it was moving $45 million originally slated for the channel to instead fund climate resilience and disaster damage prevention projects. The province cited delays in the outlet channel project for the decision.
Expropriation deals are still being finalized for land in the path of the planned channel and infrastructure projects.
“There is no delay in the expropriation process,” a representative said after the shifted funds were announced. “Government is working with the impacted landowners on timing to vacate property.”
The project has sparked anxiety among some northern ranchers with land in the way of the project. In summer 2019, impacted producers said they had been told their land was already expropriated, but had not yet been told how much they might expect to be paid for that land. The province later confirmed that expropriation letters were sent out April 11, 2019. Initial offers were mailed June 26.
Farmers complained that uncertainty surrounding those expropriation deals held the future of their farms hostage and made farm planning difficult.
David Gall of Moosehorn is in the midst of his own negotiations and says he has not heard of any timelines being pushed back due to pro-ject delays.
Gall is among the most impacted ranchers in the area. The planned route will take the channel straight through his home quarter, including the family’s home, sheds, livestock pens and other critical infrastructure.
In summer 2019, Gall was among the farmers expressing frustration with a perceived lack of communication from the province and uncertainty over cash payment amounts.
Gall was less than impressed with the province’s initial offer when he did receive a letter. He argued the offer was insufficient given the disruption the project will cause his family and operation. His family met with the province again in late 2019, a meeting that he says cleared up some miscommunication and has left him more optimistic about the land deal.
“We’re still in the process to see if it’s going to be enough,” he said. “Basically, we’re negotiating right now.”
The current offer still falls short of their anticipated needs, Gall said, although he says it is no longer “shockingly low.”
The Gall family started construction on their new home in 2019 after becoming frustrated by lack of answers from the province, despite the undecided expropriation payments. The family expects to be off their current land by next fall.
Other landowners have yet to hear back from the province, Gall added.
Ross Jermey, also of Moosehorn, is less impacted by the project than Gall, although he says he is close friends with more impacted farmers.
His own initial offer was “extremely fair,” he said, and the deal surrounding his land in direct path of the channel has been settled.
“They gave me far more than the assessed value for that land and I felt I was treated very fairly,” he said. “I won’t speak for anyone else.”
His outstanding expropriation deals are not in the path of the channel, but in the path of the planned highway reroute that is also part of the project, he said.
Manitoba Infrastructure is “dragging its feet,” on those remaining deals, he said. His last word on one of those deals was last January, the farmer said, while negotiations on other land parcels have yet to begin.