Province may cap drainage funding in Pasquia

Province could pull 
plug on pumping in 
The Pas, pushing costs on to producers and municipal government

Rod Berezowecki points to a canola field as though he’s spotted a unicorn.

“That’s one of only a couple,” explains the reeve and farmer, who represents the Rural Municipality of Kelsey. “Almost nothing was seeded.”

While it’s not unusual to have wet springs in the region, Berezowecki said the impact of excess moisture this year was unprecedented.

Roughly 25 producers farm an estimated 100,000 acres around The Pas and Opaskwayak Cree Nation, but this year they say excess moisture is the worst it’s ever been, estimating 95 per cent of cropland laid fallow this season.

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“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen it on this scale,” area farmer Gary Herman said. “It was just raining, raining, raining.”

Of the few fields that were planted, many then proved too fragile to withstand further deluges, he said, noting crops like winter wheat aren’t suitable for the region either.

“You can seed it on some higher areas, but for the most part it’s not a viable option,” Herman said. “So I would imagine there wouldn’t be any fall-seeded stuff, there hasn’t been for years up here, so it’s all just summerfallow.”

According to Manitoba Agricultural Services Corp­oration, only 5,455 acres were seeded with annual crops in the RM of Kelsey this spring — 10.7 per cent of available acres.

“AgriInsurance provides coverage of up to $100 per acre if producers are unable to seed due to wet conditions in the spring,” said David Koroscil, manager of claim services. “Producers have the option of selecting $50, $75 or $100/acre coverage. There is also a minimum acreage deductible of five per cent for Excess Moisture Insurance claims.”

After taking the deductible into account, Koroscil said 43,035 acres were eligible for excess moisture insurance compensation totalling more than $4 million.

“It was very evident that they’ve had a whole pile of hurt this year,” said Dan Mazier, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, who toured the region to get a better idea of the challenges being faced by producers near The Pas.

Cost cutting

But if the provincial government has its way, rain may not be producers’ biggest worry.

At a meeting of The Pas and District Farmers Co-op, producers gathered to discuss the possibility that funding for the extensive drainage system that keeps land arable could be cut or curtailed as government seeks cost-saving measures.

“It’s awful,” Herman said. “The government wants to cut back on our funding for operating costs that keep us dry… they are letting us down, bottom line.”

Farming in the Rural Municipality of Kelsey is made possible by a type of drainage developed in the Netherlands centuries ago called polder — the Dutch word for reclaimed land. In an effort to expand Canada’s areas of agricultural production in the postwar period, the federal government’s Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration hired an engineer from Holland to design the system.

Once designed to be gravity driven, the system now relies on an extensive series of pumping stations, added primarily to compensate for changes in water levels resulting from hydroelectric projects. Area farmers received compensation from Manitoba Hydro in the 1990s and put the payment in trust so interest could help fund drainage into the future.

“The reality is that when this area was developed 65 years ago the understanding was… you as farmers develop the land, we’ll look after the water,” Herman said. “And so it was up until last fall.”

That’s when stakeholders were informed Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government plans to hold firm the Pasquia Settlement Area pumping budget at $450,000 per year. The Manitoba Co-operator requested an interview with Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler, but instead received an email from a department spokesperson who asked the information not be attributed to him.

“Operating the system under the current guidelines is financially unsustainable,” reads the email. “Initially, the Pasquia drainage system was designed as a gravity-flow system. Due to a change in the hydrology of the area brought about by the E.B. Campbell Hydroelectric Generating Station (near Nipawin, Saskatchewan) and the Grand Rapids Dam, a pumping system was designed for the area.”

The email goes on to note that the Rural Municipality of Kelsey received compensation from Manitoba Hydro for the change in hydrology and that there is an expectation of local cost sharing for future pump operations. As for how much a change in operating rules might save the government, the spokesperson said it was too early to know and that consultations with stakeholders are ongoing.

Wet cycle

Producers gathered in The Pas to discuss the issue said they believe the government is reneging on its past promises. They also said that while it’s true that pumping has cost as much as $1.3 million some years, there are also years when the costs of keeping the area dry are negligible.

“They like to talk about the $1.3 million, but they don’t ever talk about the $50,000 it costs them in some years… and it’s pretty infuriating if you ask me, because we’ve been in a wet cycle. I think the whole province has been for the last seven or eight years, so some years, we have spent a lot of money, but there was a lot of years where we spent hardly any,” said Herman.

During dry cycles in the 1980s, there were some years that the pumps were never used.

Herman would also like the government to consider the value farmers bring to the area when evaluating the cost of pumping water off the land.

“What we put back into the local and northern economy, and provincial economy as a whole, much, much outweighs what it costs them,” he said. “We’re talking a few hundred thousand dollars, when we’re putting millions back into the economy as producers, so that doesn’t make sense to me, not with a provincial Conservative government.”

Mazier said that he too didn’t “understand the cross-messaging” coming from the province on the issue, noting he has seen a real push to expand the agricultural industry in other areas of policy.

For its part, the province said it “is still consulting with stakeholders on plans for future pump operations,” and noted a public consultation was held on August 22. But the spokesperson didn’t indicate if flooding might occur or if some producers might be bought out in the process.

“I think they have been good at providing an audience… are they hearing, are they listening and are they going to act upon it? I think that remains to be seen,” Herman said.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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