Southwest ranchers grapple with flooding

Cattle converge near the swollen Maple Lakes drain after heavy rains two weeks ago around Reston unleashed “flash flooding.”  Photo: Daniel Winters

Fast flowing water from recent rainstorms in the Reston area has caused 
widespread damage to downstream roads, haylands and crops

RMofAlbert_Pipestone_#_opt.jpegWith five gyres the colour of black tea swirling into culverts in the background, Garth Elliott stood on a washed-out road and looks out over what appears to be an inland sea.

It’s actually Stoney Creek, which in most years is a tiny rivulet fed by sloughs.

“Some years, this creek doesn’t even run,” said Elliott.

But this spring, swollen by well over a dozen inches of rain that created havoc in the town of Reston two weeks ago, it’s a gushing torrent.

He should be putting up hay this time of year. But right now Elliott is wondering how he’ll move the 100 cow-calf pairs that can barely be seen grazing on a small patch of dry land off in the distance.

With many roads in the RMs of Albert and Cameron closed, trailering them is going to be tough, and he’s not even sure how he’ll get to them onhis ATV.

His 60 heifers are on reasonably dry pasture, but he was forced to rent nearby pastures for another group of 120 cow-calf pairs that had to be herded overland through a foot of water after they were stranded near a poplar bluff, the only dry place left in six quarters of marshy hayland.

That pasture is getting beaten down, and he’ll have to move them somewhere else shortly.

Elliott figures the massive rainstorms west of Reston, about 15 miles upstream, dumped as much as 15 inches of rain. As the water rose on Stoney Creek, just south of his family’s century homestead, they scrambled to protect their homes by hastily erecting a barrier of round bales and plastic.

The dike held against water about a foot deep, but altogether he’s lost about 600 acres of cropland, both canola and silage corn to the flood.

“We’re hoping some ofthese flats might dry up so we can seed greenfeed by the end of July, but that’s really pushing it for the time left in the growing season,” said Elliott.

Gavin Mackenzie, a young farmer and oilfield worker who also lives along Stoney Creek, said that the deluge is the worst to hit the area in more than 100 years.

“It’s a hell of a mess,” said Mackenzie, who recently took aerial photos of the devastation. “The 1976 flood doesn’t even compare.”

His 130 cow-calf pairs are fine for now on pastures that are half water, half grass. He’s started haying about a week later than he normally does, mainly because his position on local RM council kept him busy with flood-relief work.

Mackenzie believes that climate change is changing weather pattern and causing bigger and more intense rainstorms, and the shift from ranching in the area to grain farming is leading to reckless drainage upstream, especially just over the border in Saskatchewan where there are effectively “no rules.”

“Grain farmers hate it when guys like me say this, but there’s no sloughs left and drainage everywhere, so this is what you get,” said Mackenzie.

Scrapers and trenchers improving land for grain production have changed the landscape so much that water no longer follows established runs GarthElliottbalebarrier_DWi.jpgas in past decades, he added.

Trevor Atchison, president of the Manitoba Beef Producers, who ranches just a few miles farther west, said that the downpours that began hitting Reston on June 21 have created much worse problems for ranchers and farmers in low-lying areas than even the epic flood of 2011.

“The water that fell near Reston will make its way to the Souris River, but it takes awhile for it to get there,” he said.

The sprawling marsh known as the Maple Lakes, just south of Oak Lake, is overfull, he said, and the man-made drain that regulates its level is running over a number of roads on its way to the Souris River.

Stoney Creek, which empties into Maple Lakes, has jumped its banks in places and bypassed the lakes.

Overland flooding in some areas has thrown a wrench into grazing rotations, said Atchison, who added that a number of ranchers have had to put cattle on their hayfields while the pastures dry up — a move that could end up costing them a good portion of the hay crop.

“You do what you gotta do,” said Atchison.

Mackenzie, who also sits on the 2011 Southwest Flood Committee headed by Sifton Reeve Rick Plaisier, remembers the dry years of the 1980s when the southwest was perpetually parched.

Seeing water run over the landscape in recent years has been “neat,” but it’s getting to the point where “it’s not funny anymore.”

As a councillor, he hopes that funding from the Emergency Measure Organization and Disaster Financial Assistance will help out. If not, taxes will have to rise to punishing levels to pay for all the damage.

“This is going to cost a fortune,” said Mackenzie.

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