The Manitoba government now admits there was some “artificial flooding” downstream from the Shellmouth Dam this summer and has promised compensation.
But the chair of the Assiniboine Valley Producers Association is wary and fears farmers won’t be fully compensated because of the narrow definition of artificial flooding in the Shellmouth Dam Act.
“They say if you’ve already got a foot of water on your land, and then we artificially flood you by putting six inches more water on your land, there’s actually no damage because you were already flooded,” said Stan Cochrane.
But a provincial government spokesman said the province would be looking at the damage caused by the flooding.
“Analysis indicates that the nature of flooding was delayed drainage of Assiniboine Valley lands and potentially delaying reseeding of crops by up to two weeks,” he wrote in an email.
“A compensation program will be developed in the coming months, and affected producers will be contacted on the details.”
Many farmers in the Assiniboine Valley say provincial officials anticipated a drought this spring and so held back more water than necessary to ensure adequate supplies for downstream users and cottagers on Lake of the Prairies. But when heavy rains hit and water began rushing towards the dam, they had little choice but to let it go over the spillway and flood farms, causing millions in crop losses.
The dam was built in the early 1970s to prevent flooding on the Assiniboine, not to store water, said Cochrane.
“The people who have cottages on the lake want it just right all the time,” he said, adding that requires lake levels of 1,402 feet above sea level — just six feet below the level of the spillway.
“That doesn’t do much for flood prevention,” he said.
The province should buy out farmers in the narrow, flood-prone stretch of the Assiniboine from Shellmouth to St. Lazare so it can have more flexibility in dam operations, he said.
Cliff Trinder, who farms a long stretch of the river near Millwood, just downstream from Shellmouth, has long argued for a buyout after years of constant flooding has made it virtually impossible to farm on the most vulnerable parts of his property.
He and others along the stretch, some of whom are suing the province, have been flooded 14 times since 2005, he said.
“With these extra flows, I don’t think that Manitoba has got another option,” said Trinder, who estimates the cost at “tens of millions” for the buyout and compensation for past damages.
Rampant illegal drainage in eastern Saskatchewan is making the situation worse, and the increased flows are reaching the point where the Portage Diversion won’t be able to handle any more water, area producers say.
Rumours that the Saskatchewan government is planning to clamp down on illegal drains has led to a kind of “gold rush” of ditching in hopes it will be grandfathered in when the provincial drainage policy there is due for re-examination in 2014.
“They’ve gone out there whole hog and gone absolutely crazy,” said Trinder, adding that he’s seen fresh 12-foot ditches, two miles long along municipal roads that drain parcels as large as 12 square miles.
All the additional drainage upstream on the Souris, Qu’Appelle, and Assiniboine, he added, may mean that Manitoba won’t be able to avert a future disaster as it did in 2011 on Hoop and Holler bend near the Portage Diversion.