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Farmers watch nervously as moisture piles up

Government readiness for spring flood questioned as new federal and provincial administrations lack flood-fighting experience

The possible threat of major flooding in Manitoba this spring has Keystone Agricultural Producers worried rookie governments in Winnipeg and Ottawa may not be prepared for it.

The combination of fiscal restraint and flood damage could produce a big problem if initial signs of widespread spring flooding turn out to be true, said Dan Mazier, KAP president.

“My fear is that we have two new governments and they’re talking about financial restraints and how governments are going to deal with it. I don’t know if we have the wherewithal to take another billion-dollar hit,” Mazier said last week.

“If we did have a one-in-300-year flood, are we ready for that?”

Concerns about a flood risk have been building ever since Mazier started sounding alarm bells last October, when near-record rains swept across much of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The wet fall weather left soils saturated at freeze-up and unable to absorb spring run-off. Heavy snowfall so far this winter has added to a possible flood risk.

“At the end of the day, I would say people should be preparing for a flood. The question will be the type of magnitude we’re going to see,” said Bruce Burnett, weather and crop specialist for G3 Canada, the former Canadian Wheat Board.

“I think we should be on alert because if we get into a situation where we have another one or two major storms go through the Manitoba region, that will certainly put us over the top in terms of the amount of snowpack available to melt.”

Predictions of a flood this spring are still premature. The province will not issue its first flood forecast until later in February.

But a report on 2016 fall conditions issued in December by the province’s Hydrologic Forecast Centre is not reassuring.

The report found all river basins in Manitoba received above-normal precipitation between May and November. The U.S. National Weather Service long-range forecast calls for above-normal precipitation for southern Manitoba and the Red River basin during the winter. All major rivers will have to be closely watched because of above-normal soil moisture and high flow conditions, the report cautions.

“Even with normal winter precipitation, these watersheds could see major flooding if a fast melt rate or heavy spring rainfall were to occur in early spring,” it said.

“The preliminary assessment of the extremely wet soil moisture conditions, the above-normal to well-above base flow and water level conditions, and the near-normal to above-normal future precipitation forecasts in our basins indicate the probable chance of moderate to major flooding at some locations.”

What’s needed is a long, slow, spring melt with temperatures dipping below freezing at night to avoid a rapid run-off, Burnett said. However, a negative scenario would be a prolonged winter with more snow and a late-spring melt in April, causing flood waters to rise rapidly, he added.

Manitoba farmers have experienced a series of overland flooding events in the last 12 years which have severely impacted crop production. The worst one occurred in 2011 when flooding along the Assiniboine and Souris rivers left almost three million acres — a third of Manitoba’s annual cropland — too wet to seed. The Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation paid out $162 million in excess moisture insurance that year. Three years later in 2014, just under a million acres went unseeded because of major weather storms in early summer. EMI payments that year totalled $63 million.

Although stressing he didn’t want to be alarmist, Mazier said pre-winter conditions this time are worse than either of those two years.

“My gut is telling me right now, we are wetter than we were pre-2011.”

Mazier said he wants both provincial and federal governments to know how flooding will affect programs such as AgriRecovery and AgriStability and their ability to help producers cover losses.

His message to government: “Make sure they’re ready for whatever happens.”

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