Flooded ranchers and landowners around the three Shoal Lakes in the Interlake were told last week it is cheaper for governments to buy them out than come to their rescue with drainage.
Area residents who packed into the community hall here had their worst fears confirmed as they learned the conclusions of a study commissioned by a local municipal task force and the provincial government.
They were told the basin has no natural drainage outlet and it has been gradually filling over the past 10 years to the point where lake levels are at a record 261.76 metres above sea level. The last time waters came close to being this high was in 1913.
As a result, the lakes have grown to where they now flood an additional 42,500 ha, directly affecting 117 landowners and untold numbers of people indirectly because of the impact on the region’s transportation corridors.
“Basically what looks like three lakes on the map is one lake right now,” said KGS consultant Dave Brown.
Two provincial roads, Highway 415 and 518, were closed in June and won’t reopen in the immediate future, if at all. Provincial officials said it would cost $6 million to repair, but that can’t even be considered until the water goes down.
Highways crews are fighting what appears to be a losing battle to keep Provincial Road 229 passable, despite an investment of over $200,000 in extra maintenance.
The province is offering property owners financial assistance to floodproof or move their buildings – 86 per cent of the cost to a maximum of $86,000 per building.
But there is no sign of relief from the rising waters. Waters rose a foot after last spring’s snowmelt and projections suggest the lakes’ levels could rise another foot by next spring.
“The problem is the precipitation has exceeded the evaporation and the water levels are rising,” said Steve Topping, a senior official with Manitoba Water Stewardship.
Even if governments were prepared to pay the estimated $23 million to $32 million to install one of the two drainage options considered, the project would face massive opposition from downstream recipients. Of the 350 people who attended the meeting, many were there to raise concerns over what impact drainage might have on the water levels and quality of Lake Manitoba, one of the possible drainage routes.
The southern option, sending it through the Sturgeon Creek or Grassmere Drain watersheds could increase the risk of flooding in those areas, residents were told.
Getting three levels of government on side, carrying out the required environmental assessments and completing the work could take five to eight years, Brown said.
Besides, drainage could have a negative effect on waterfowl habitat and the area is recognized nationally as an important staging area for birds. “We are dealing with some very valuable land for our waterfowl and avians,” he said.
Meanwhile, the region affected is Class 5 to 7 agricultural land, which places it at the bottom of the productivity scale.
A buyout package based on the assessed value of the property plus 20 per cent premium, would cost less than $12 million.
Topping stressed to the audience that it was up to the politicians to make a decision as to whether any of the options would be supported. But the numbers make it difficult to justify any attempt to drain the area – especially since it could create damaging downstream effects.
But a government report that says the land in this region has little agricultural value doesn’t sit well with people who have been farming it for three generations.
Settlement in the area dates back to the late 1800s, with British immigrants taking up residence south of the lakes, Icelandic settlers on the east and the Métis on the west.
If managed carefully, those Class 5 to 7 lands have proven invaluable, allowing ranchers to build successful enterprises using low-input management, noted Inwood-area rancher Larry Torske.
“For over 130 years, the land surrounding these lakes was an area that was among the best regions for raising cattle in the province,” he said.
As for the birds, there are losses as well as gains from all the extra water, he said, noting the area was once cited as one of the few breeding grounds remaining for the Piping Plover, which is on Canada’s endangered species risk. Their breeding grounds are now under water.
Torske has gone through the consultant’s report line by line and believes he’s found a number of gaps and inaccuracies that skew its conclusions.
For example, the analysis of the impacts of drainage only looks at the potential negative downstream effects for aquatic and birds, “ignoring the fact that the lake is seriously flooded land that is not in its normal state,” he said. “The bias here is clearly against a drain.”
Theresa Zuk, an area resident who serves as the local Manitoba Cattle Producers Association director, said the area’s cattlemen deserve more consideration; they are losing their life’s work while governments deliberate over the future.
“Why can’t we get a clear timeline so they can make forward decisions and what they need to do to carry on with their business?” Zuk said.
Earl Zotter, a councillor with the Rural Municipality of St. Laurent, said the cost-benefit analysis used in the study only considered deeded land, not the Crown lands that would be lost from production.
Nor does it factor in the impact of reducing the area’s population and all of the associated trade on the surrounding area.
Zotter was among a number of speakers at the meeting who questioned why only the most expensive drainage options were considered.
“At the end of the day, we have to have an answer from government whether they want people living in the rural areas or not,” Zotter said.
“I don’t think a buyout is the solution. It’s going to kill the rural economy if they go that way.” [email protected]