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Manitoba Hydro versus Manitoba farmers: billions at stake

Manitoba Hydro is in for a shock: farmers will not accept token compensation for reduced productivity from the operational impacts of Bipole III lines.

A significant group of farmers is now working with the Canadian Association of Energy and Pipeline Landowners Association (CAEPLA) to protect their rights and options. And, Hydro had best not forget their other new high voltage lines about to be constructed in Manitoba (e.g. Minnesota connection) will meet similar resistance.

Take note Hydro, it’s time an acceptable and realistic process was established to compensate farmers whose livelihood is affected.

The licence issued to Manitoba Hydro for Bipole III contains only two provisions dealing with impacts on farmers.

The first requires Manitoba Hydro “to consult with agricultural landowners to determine tower placement that would have the least impact on agricultural operations, and incorporate those into the final design.”

It goes on to provide Hydro a back door, by indicating “unless there is compelling rationale to depart.” Farmers can be prepared to hear a lot of “compelling rationale,” but Hydro had better expect to hear a lot of “locate it outside agricultural areas.”

Underground lines through agricultural areas combined with an east side route would have reduced impacts on farming and saved Hydro and taxpayers billions.

The Bipole III Coalition provided compelling evidence to the Clean Environment Commission (CEC) about impacts on farming, but these were largely ignored. The pace of technological change is increasing, so one cannot expect the same farming technology to be in place 60 years from now. Just consider the difference today from 1950, and that will confirm that, unlike caribou and ducks, agriculture is changing rapidly. A fair compensation framework needs the capacity to respect evolving technology and farming practices.

The 100-foot plus width of equipment used today will pale when compared with that in use 60 years from now, and a system must be in place to assure fair compensation in the context of operational cost changes and competitiveness in light of new technologies.

Farmers are currently required to spread manure according to a provincially approved plan. The best technology today utilizes an eight-inch diameter umbilical hose containing the liquid fertilizer dragged behind a tractor from the holding tank to the fields. Fields cut in two by a towers will force farmers to acquire additional suitable lands to comply with their approved plan, or to lose either all or some of their intensive livestock operation.

Spraying for insects, fungi or weeds, especially in the clay soils, cannot be done by ground equipment when wet, so aerial spraying is often the only option. It is unsafe to operate a spray aircraft closer than a half mile from high wires, depending on the wind, and farther if the crop is seeded perpendicular to the line. The line, then, affects crops at least one half mile on either side, even when the owner on one side may not actually have the line or towers on his or her land. In some years and with some crops, this could spell disaster.

These are only two examples illustrating the pervasive impacts of Bipole III and how it will affect a much wider area than the immediate location of the towers and just beneath the lines.

Throughout the entire Bipole III review process, starting with token “consultations” through to the Environmental Impact Statement and CEC hearings, Hydro has taken a dismissive view of any agricultural impacts.

Presumably, this is because Hydro feels that affected farmers are few relative to the total, and not well organized to fight back. The EIS itself spent more time on birds and snakes than on rural Manitoba’s basic industry. Hydro clearly intends to make quick individual deals and use them to bludgeon the rest into submission.

The second provision in the licence that applies to farmers requires Hydro to develop a policy to provide an option for annual compensation payments instead of one lump sum.

There are three reasons why annual payments should be mandatory.

First, it’s impossible to accurately estimate losses over a period extending over 25 years, let alone 60 years or longer.

Second, a lump sum is likely to be only a fraction of actual losses, but nonetheless will be subject to income tax the year it is received (an incidental benefit to the provincial coffers)!

Third, even if the current owner decided to accept a lump sum payment, future owners will receive no consideration at all, even though in theory they received it in the form of a reduced price for the land when they bought it. Losses occur annually in varying degrees, thus, compensation should reflect the loss in the year it actually occurs.

It is not just to the farmers’ benefit that losses be compensated annually. Given rapidly evolving technologies, it’s conceivable in the future that aerial spraying will be done by drones accurately guided by GPS. It is also possible that newer technologies for injecting liquid manure to avoid entanglements with towers will be developed. In both cases, Hydro would face reduced annual compensation payments, as losses would be lower.

Given the way Hydro has been hogging revenue from Manitoba agriculture, it’s no wonder farmers are frustrated and ready to revolt. They clearly have a legitimate beef.

Hydro is milking farmers for all it can, but in the end Hydro will have egg on its face: Consequently, Hydro can expect landowners, through CAEPLA, to mount a well-organized, logical and persuasive campaign to protect their investments and future livelihood.

The fight’s not over yet, not by a long shot. Other proposed transmission lines will increase the numbers of farmers affected, thus making many more aware that their impacts are not just in someone else’s back yard.

When the smoke clears, underground lines in southern Manitoba may very well turn out to have been the least expensive alternative.

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