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Making Election Hay

Although some were cautious in their praise, few in the farming community had any quibbles with the special compensation package the province announced to help farmers cope with losses related to flooding and livestock lost in the late-April blizzard.

And rightly so. The package, at least on the surface, is comprehensive and goes beyond what many would have expected, especially in the absence of a clear commitment from the federal government to cost share.

Agriculture is a joint federal and provincial responsibility in Canada, and most programs are shared on a 60-40 basis. Over the years, that’s led to lots of haggling as the two jurisdictions get their act together.

As recently as last year, cattle producers were left hanging beyond what was reasonable while the federal and provincial governments hummed and hawed over what type of assistance package was needed to help with feed shortages following last summer’s excessive moisture conditions. The announcement finally came shortly before Christmas, long after producers would have been forced to make a decision to buy hay or reduce their herds.

The cynics among us would suggest we have the upcoming provincial election Oct. 4 to thank for the NDP government’s willingness to put its money on the table up front. Just as we noted the announcement- a-day syndrome afflicting the federal Conservatives in the months leading up to this spring’s election call, the funds have been flowing rather freely in Manitoba lately too.

That doesn’t take away from the worthiness of the support. But it goes without saying that the federal Conservatives, which are already elected and on a platform of fiscal restraint, might not be as quick to loosen the purse strings post-election. As well, anything they do, or not, could reflect on their provincial counterparts at the polls.

But just because it was politically expedient for the provincial NDP to move on compensation unilaterally, leaving the details with federal cost sharing to be dealt with later, it doesn’t take away from the fact that it was also the right thing to do.

It is also encouraging to see comments from the premier suggesting the province will be taking a “watershed-wide” look at flood mitigation and seeking a balance between the increased calls for improved drainage and research that supports the use of wetlands for water storage and cleansing.

This may provide the greatest opportunity for reducing the cost of flood fighting in Manitoba, but it is also far more complicated than building ring dikes, digging deeper ditches and filling sandbags.

The Assiniboine River watershed extends across Western Canada, the Red River’s, into the U.S. This year’s flooding on the Assiniboine has as much to do with what’s happening on the landscape in Saskatchewan as it did in Manitoba.

Coming up with a long-term water management strategy could involve co-operative agreements between three Prairie provinces and at least two U.S. states. A good start would be the formation of an Assiniboine River Basin Commission similar to the Red River Basin Commission to identify the challenges and seek solutions.

The Buyout Dilemma

Farmers affected by flooding in the Shoal Lakes area now face a difficult choice with the Manitoba government’s offer of a voluntary buyout, in addition to the compensation for losses due to flooded land in 2010 and 2011.

They knew this decision might come. A report released last fall concluded buying out the flooded farmers would cost government less than finding a solution to the rising water levels that have combined three lakes into one, overtaken roads and flooded both private land and Crown leases.

As of last fall, there were about 120 landowners and about 43,000 ha affected to varying degrees by the lakes’ progressive spread over the past decade.

If landowners take the province’s money and turn over their deeds and Crown leases, they lose their livelihoods and in some cases, their family heritage. The region stands to lose dozens of families as they leave to seek economic opportunities elsewhere. That land is unlikely to be returned to agricultural production, even if the waters subside.

Many would prefer to stay and fight for a solution for all the extra water.

The problem with the flooding in this region is there is no natural outlet for the waters.

In addition to the high cost, providing one would create flooding problems elsewhere. That means the debate over what to do would be protracted and contentious. When faced with no-win situations, governments have a tendency to do nothing.

Even if governments were convinced to put an outlet in place, implementation would take years. Most families can’t afford to be waiting in limbo for that long.

The Shoal Lakes flooding is not rooted in man-made causes. The government is providing producers there with an outlet, but this time, it’s for the people, not the water. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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