A recent $540-million funding pledge is pushing forward the Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin outlet channels and reaction from farmers depends on where they are along the shoreline.
For those whose anxieties rise with the water levels every time the Assiniboine River floods, the new momentum is welcome news.
Farmers along Lake Manitoba’s south basin and western side have long advocated for the two outlets, which, when in operation, would drain water from Lake Manitoba to Lake St. Martin, and then on to Lake Winnipeg.
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The channels, they say, are necessary for flood management in a region that has been hit hard by high water, including a 2011 flood, which cost farmers three million acres of unseeded land and displaced tens of thousands of cattle.
“Unfortunately, I think it’s going to take quite a while before they actually get around to doing something about it,” Brad Knight, who farms north of MacDonald, Man., said.
“It needs to be done, there’s no question, just so that it will alleviate some of the issues that we’ve been dealing with,” he added.
His land, only a half-mile from the banks of Lake Manitoba and four miles west of the Portage Diversion, has gone under water repeatedly since 2011, when he estimates he lost over 800 acres.
By 2012, that number had dropped to 300-400 acres. He has since been able to work that land, he said, although he says that productivity has dropped, something he blames on salinity and other high water issues.
“The biggest thing is lost income,” he said. “That’s been the hardest thing on our farm. That’s what we do. We grow crops and if the land’s been taken away from me because it’s flooded, I’ve got no production, right? So that’s one of the biggest hurdles that we’ve had to deal with on our farm, trying to continue to keep the operation going forward with reduced acres.”
The funding announcement, which the province says will top off what is needed for the project, has generally been welcomed by farm groups, including the Manitoba Beef Producers. MBP has lobbied for the outlets for years, arguing they will protect ranchers that saw pastures, hay land, and even herds go under water in 2011, and then again in 2014 when the Assiniboine River flooded.
“The high water certainly affected a number of producers,” MBP general manager Brian Lemon said. “The story I’ve been telling is when you flood those lands and those pastures, it’s not the same as a Red River flood in the spring. The high water hangs around longer and actually destroys pastures that in some cases will take years to come back. The Red River floods can be devastating, but they’re typically short lived and the cropping sector is able to seed their crops after the water recedes.”
In the path
To the north, however, are a smaller number of producers whose land crosses the proposed route at the north end of Lake Manitoba.
Brad Dreger, who farms 2,500 acres near Moosehorn, Man., says the situation has left him in “limbo” as the province finalizes plans.
“It’s going to cut my farm in half and I have land on both sides, pretty much the same amount on both sides,” he said. “Right now, it’s all in one block, so it’s going to depreciate my farm quite a bit if I ever want to sell it, because all of a sudden you’re going to have this big ditch dividing it in half.”
The channel’s route would cross six quarters of private land operated by Dreger, while the planned reroute of Provincial Road 239 will also chip into his property.
In total, he says he expects to lose 450 acres, land he currently has put to forage seed production and annual crops.
Two of those quarters are recently purchased, he added, a sale that he admits he paid over valuation price for, since the land completed the block of his farm.
He does not know how much of that extra cost he will be able to recoup with the province.
“I took down all the fences already and I’ve started breaking it up too,” he said. “It was mostly pasture land, so I started breaking it up and summerfallowing it and then I seeded it last year and this year, a big chunk of it.”
Plans for that land are now in question, he says, as he weighs the benefits of developing fields, only to have them expropriated as early as next fall.
“If I’m only going to get one year out of it, it’s not worth it. It costs me more than what kind of money I make on a crop,” he said.
Dreger says he has been given limited details on what his compensation might look like.
Mark Allard, outlet channel project director with Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation, estimates 25-30 producers are in the project’s path.
“There’s two avenues of acquisition,” he said. “What we refer to as a mutual agreement — so if you agree to sell the property, we agree on a fair market value price. That transaction takes place; Manitoba takes possession of the land. If you are an unwilling seller, Manitoba then has to make the decision of expropriation and within the Expropriation Act, there are opportunities to compensate for injurious affection or loss of production, those types of things.”
Allard says loss of future production and lack of efficiency may be included in that calculation on top of plain land value, along with value loss if the channel breaks up a farm bloc. The province may offer additional land for the farmer as one option, in exchange for expropriated land, he added.
MBP has outlined compensation concerns in initial talks with the province, Lemon said. The producers’ group has urged the province to consider long-term costs as well as the land value.
“There are different ways producers are going to get impacted,” Lemon said. “In some cases, the channel is going to cut right through their properties and land is going to be expropriated and the channel is going to be built. In other cases, it’s going to add travel time and it’s going to be circumstances where maybe in the past they were able to walk cattle from one pasture to the next just across a fenceline, whereas now they’re going to have to load cattle up. They’re going to have to transport them, in some cases, three or four miles away and then across the canal and then back again.”
Allard says other details, such as grazing and haying rights on the channel bank, will have to wait for the environmental impact assessment.
The province has proposed land-use limitations that would exclude haying and grazing on the Lake Manitoba channel, although Allard says that proposal is still up for public comment.
The province argues that grazing the outlet would come with erosion, biosecurity, nutrient loading or livestock safety concerns.
The proposal would instead return banks to natural habitat, Allard said, something he argues would increase the likelihood the project will get the environmental green light.
“Because of the footprint of the channel and the impact we have on the existing environmental habitat there, there’s going to be a responsibility for us to offset or replace the damage that we have caused,” he said.
The province hopes to start acquiring land this year, with construction breaking ground next fall, at the earliest.