Apromise by Premier Greg Selinger to swiftly and fully compensate victims of man-made flooding near Portage la Prairie has farmers and ranchers near the Shellmouth Dam asking why they haven’t received the same treatment.
“I wish the guys at Hoop and Holler a hell of a lot of luck,” said Cliff Trinder, who has 650 head of cattle and 300 horses on 30 quarters of picturesque riverside land just downstream from Shellmouth Dam.
“But if they get it, then I want mine first because I’m two years ahead of them.”
Trinder said he has been flooded out 12 times in the past five years and only compensated for a fraction of his losses. During the flood of 1995, he claimed $300,000 in damages, but got only $26,000 and has yet to hear back on a $165,000 claim from 2009, when his land was under water for 125 days.
“They’ve promised Hoop and Holler that they’re going to look after them,” he said. “Their situation is exactly the same as mine: they opened the gates on Shellmouth Dam and flooded me.”
Gene Nerbas, a rancher who runs 1,500 head of cattle just five miles south of the dam and vice-chair of the Assiniboine Valley Producers Association (ASVP), said he has been fighting “obstinate bureaucrats” for fair compensation for 39 years and is considering court action.
“What they give us, they should be ashamed of themselves – it’s a pittance,” said Nerbas, adding last year’s uncontrolled release cost him about $500,000 in lost forage production, grazing and other expenses.
“They just can’t get enough in the paper about Hoop and Holler, but there is no mention of our area. I find that very disgusting.”
Agriculture Minister Stan Struthers said his government recognizes its obligation to provide full compensation for victims of man-made flooding.
“Those Manitobans (near Hoop and Holler) took the hit for the rest of us, so we need to be very fair and swift with our compensation,” said Struthers.
That also goes for ranchers downstream from the Shellmouth Dam, he said.
“We compensated them three years in a row for their damages, and then last year we compensated them again for the 2010 year,” he said. “I’ve always been willing to sit and speak with those folks about compensation.”
Flood assistance for Assiniboine Valley farmers between Shellmouth and Brandon was budgeted $2.5 million in 2010, while the Assiniboine Valley Producers Flood Compensation Program provided area producers with more than $900,000 in 2005, $380,000 in 2006 and $195,000 in 2007. For 2010, native hay, pasture and the restoration of forage crops were included in the program.
But Trinder estimates the tally just for his flooded fields and lost production over the past 40 years could be as high as $5 million.
And Stan Cochrane, chair of the ASVP, who farms along the Assiniboine north of Oak Lake, said that even after 40 years, producers downstream from Shellmouth still don’t have a permanent compensat ion package.
“With all the added drainage, there’s nothing natural happening in the valley anymore. We’re just the recipients of everybody else’s water,” he said.
According to long-term records from Yorkton, Sask., in the centre of the watershed, drainage by farmers, rural municipalities and highways in both provinces has bumped up flows almost nine per cent since 1985.
Now, there is talk of adding flows from Fishing Lake, Sask., to save hundreds of cottages at risk of being drowned out, and the downstream impact of logging thousands of acres of trees in Duck Mountain Provincial Park.
Struthers said the province and Ottawa have proposed spending $7 million to $12 million on improvements, including “leaf gates” to allow Lake of the Prairies to hold back more water. This will create “better management tools” to prevent downstream flooding, he said.
Producers downstream of the dam say action is long overdue.
Before its construction in 1971, the river flooding was a relatively predictable spring event that producers could work around. Now, the operators of the dam typically hold back the spring melt, and then release it gradually over the summer to regulate peak flows downstream. Lately, Trinder has had to deal with winter flooding, which deposits layers of ice like a skating rink on his forage, pasture and cropland.
Last year, he figures he lost around 50 head of cattle that simply “disappeared” after falling through the slush and ice near his wintering grounds. Only 23 carcasses were found come spring.
Trinder noted that a 2003 report on downstream impacts on landowners was shelved, and hasn’t been heard of since, possibly because its contents were politically unpalatable due to the potential cost of litigation for past damages.
To publicize their own plight, producers have created a playfully named website www.assdam.com, which features photos of drowned cattle and flooded fields.
daniel. [email protected]
– Cliff Trinder