It happens ever year, no matter how wet or dry conditions have been.
Water lays in the pastures and fields along the Upper Assiniboine River downstream from the Shellmouth Dam.
Cliff Trinder, who runs a cattle operation with 32 miles of river frontage near Russell, describes the situation as “a mess” and says it’s high time the province dealt with the situation instead of perpetually kicking the can down the road.
“We need to sit down and come up with some solutions and agreements about what we are going to do up here,” Trinder said recently.
Without action, landowners like him will be left to pick up the frequent and hefty tab for the actions of others, he said.
“I am hugely impacted,” Trinder said. “A small flood will cost me half a million dollars in reconstruction and direct losses, and after so many years of constant flooding my pastures look like wasteland. The ground is so saturated that you can’t even drive a quad on it.”
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An estimated 50,000 acres along the banks of the Assiniboine, from the Shellmouth Dam to St. Lazare, are said to be at risk of flooding every spring, and over the past decade it has reached crisis proportions, says Stan Chochrane, chairman of the Assiniboine Valley Producers and a grain and cattle farmer who operates just outside the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation near Griswold.
“Around 2006-07, we started to have floods nearly every year. It has been a financial hardship, plus it has taken a lot of effort to try and manage a farm when a portion of your land is getting flooded all the time,” Cochrane said.
At the heart of the issue is the Shellmouth Dam, holding back the Lake of the Prairies.
As far back as the 1920s the province began to look at flood mitigation strategies, and following a study conducted in 1950, it was concluded that the creation of a reservoir at Lake of the Prairies, along with the Portage Diversion, would be the most feasible solution.
Construction of the Shellmouth Dam was completed in 1972 and has since been operated by Manitoba Infrastructure (MIT) as an on-stream reservoir.
“We operate the facility in consultation with a group known as the Shellmouth Liaison Committee and we have regular conference calls with it during the operational period of the dam,” said Doug McMahon, assistant deputy minister with MIT’s water management and structures division.
The Shellmouth Liaison Committee consists of upstream and downstream stakeholders, including agricultural interests, the City of Brandon, Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg, as well as local residents and conservation districts.
Trinder and Cochrane are both members of the committee, representing affected agriculture interests.
Farmers with property along the river frontage say they expect to see flooding in times of increased spring run-off or high levels of precipitation but they are frustrated as they feel in many cases flooding could be avoided with better management of the dam.
“In 2010, 2012 and 2014, farmers had seeded all the way to Brandon and all of those years they lost those crops in summer floods because the dam did not have the capacity to catch the summer rains because they did not operate the dam properly in the spring,” Trinder said.
McMahon says that along with water flow measurements and forecasts, operators also have to focus on the level of water within the reservoir, which affects when the dam is released.
“It is a delicate balancing act managing the facility,” McMahon said. “We have aggressively drawn that reservoir down in the last half a dozen years in anticipation of spring run-off but once it is full, we have to release it.”
Nobody disagrees that a full reservoir has to be drained or that rainfall has to go somewhere. What local landowners contend is the decisions have been made with the interests of the provincial budget in mind, not local landowners.
In 2010, the province passed the Shellmouth Dam Act, which stipulates that the province is only responsible for flood compensation in times of artificial flooding.
“The operation of the dam has become so much worse since that legislation came into effect,” Trinder said.
It caused the province to attempt to match inflow and outflow and sets the stage for emergency outflows later in the season well after peak water should be an issue, he said.
“When the summer rains come, they have no control because they haven’t put out what they should have earlier in the season,” Trinder said.
Cochrane agrees, saying the definition of artificial flooding has hampered the province from releasing water from the dam at more appropriate times that would allow for downstream producers to have a better chance of recovering.
“Right now the province does a very poor job of managing the dam because they have these operational guidelines,” Cochrane said. “They will not let more water out of the dam than is coming in because that is considered artificial flooding.”
McMahon says this year the reservoir had been drawn down to a fairly low level already and MIT did not have the opportunity to release more water because there is a limit to how far down the facility can be drawn down.
“Essentially, there is only so much water in that reservoir and certainly if there is an opportunity to reduce it, we have done that in the past,” McMahon said.
“This is a moderately sized reservoir and there is only so much we can do with that.”
Although timing of the dam release and compensation may be contentious issues, both residents and provincial experts agree on the challenge that comes with predicting the Shellmouth Dam’s inflows.
McMahon says the Upper Assiniboine Basin is the most challenging basin in the province to accurately forecast.
“About 75 per cent of the Assiniboine River Basin comes from outside Manitoba,” McMahon said. “So, it can be very challenging in wet years to operate the facility to the satisfaction to all of the interests.”
“There is a lot of speculation over how changing land use is changing the hydrology in that part of the basin,” McMahon continued. “Our forecasting methods rely on a lot of historical values and soil conditions but if we have changing land uses, it will certainly impact the forecasting accuracy.”
Both Trinder and Cochrane have no doubt that increased drainage in Saskatchewan has caused a dramatic rise in water flows moving into the province.
“Manitoba is underestimating the flows because of the situation with agricultural and infrastructural drainage in Saskatchewan. The inflow numbers are so far out of whack,” Trinder said. “Saskatchewan’s land drainage is out of control, unmeasured, and still increasing.”
McMahon says that the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency does not do a lot of forecasting in Assiniboine River Basin, as there are not a lot of ramifications down stream for them, so there is little data on water volumes, but notes the two provinces recently inked a memorandum of understanding to talk about the problem.
In the meantime, Trinder and Cochrane, along with a number of residents on the river frontage, anxiously wait to see what position the newly instated Manitoba government will take on the issues that surround the Shellmouth Dam.
“Right now there has been no change in the government contacts we have within the liaison committee. But, I am really hoping this new government will have a different attitude about this whole situation,” Cochrane said.