Farmers in the Assiniboine Valley say they feel sold down the river by a recent interprovincial flood control agreement.
The pact between the Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments allows a controversial drainage project at Fishing Lake, Sask., to proceed with a controlled flow to avoid flooding on the upper Assiniboine River.
But Manitoba producers who live downstream say the agreement is inadequate to prevent flooding on their farmland this spring.
They say they weren’t consulted and want the project stopped pending an environmental impact study.
“I’m shocked that this is going on without proper care,” said local farmer Gene Nerbas, one day after visiting Fishing Lake to view the construction first hand.
Landowners are already prone to flooding because of the Shellmouth Dam on the Assiniboine River and the Fishing Lake agreement will only make it worse, said Nerbas.
The Saskatchewan Water Authority is digging an emergency channel to lower the level of Fishing Lake, a landlocked body of water northwest of Yorkton, and save nearby cottages and First Nations from flooding.
Saskatchewan has applied for an exemption to a federal environment impact review because of the emergency.
The Manitoba government raised an alarm in December that water from Fishing Lake would drain into the upper Assiniboine, aggravating an already-high flood risk there all the way downstream to Winnipeg.
The Manitoba and Saskatchewan agreement, announced in principle Jan. 27, will see the project go ahead with a control structure to regulate the outflow, said Steve Topping, executive director of infrastructure and operations for Manitoba Water Stewardship.
The control will work under “stringent operating rules” to prevent water from building up too fast in the Assiniboine and adding to the flood crest, said Topping.
As a result, Manitoba is satisfied and will not oppose the drainage project, he said.
Nerbas said flood-prone farmers below the Shellmouth Dam reservoir, located northwest of Russell a few miles inside the Manitoba border, don’t believe the control structure will work.
“What governments and engineers
propose on paper may look reasonable until it’s put to the scrutiny of the real world. On the ground, it does not work that way.”
Farmers feel the Shellmouth, built in 1971, already contributes to chronic farmland flooding and the Fishing Lake project will add to it, he said.
He estimated 30 to 40 farm families from the Shellmouth downstream to St. Lazare are affected.
Nerbas, whose cattle farm is five miles below the dam, said he harvested hay from only 30 of 750 acres of land at the bottom of the valley last year because of summer flooding.
He doesn’t qualify for excess moisture insurance from the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation because the land is pasture, not seeded cropland.
Now MASC tells him the land is uninsurable because the hay crop is drowned out and will not regenerate, he said.
The Manitoba government in December made $2.5 million available to Assiniboine Valley farmers who experienced financial losses to flooding in 2010. The province made similar payments in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Nerbas said he received $65 an acre in compensation for 2010 but it didn’t come close to covering his actual losses. “I lost a bumper crop of hay.”
Nerbas said the government should fully compensate farmers for all their losses or, failing that, it should buy out their land.
The province has passed but not proclaimed legislation to compensate landowners affected by flooding below the Shellmouth. Topping said the regulations are still being drafted.
Nerbas, 61, runs 600 beef cows with his two sons on the ranch where he has lived his whole life. He said floods used to come and go without affecting his ability to harvest hay. Now things are different.
“Since 1971 when the dam was put in operation, there has never been anything natural after that.” [email protected]
– Gene Nerbas