Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Assiniboine River valley struggling with flooding

Shellmouth Dam closure blamed for farmers' losses

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A wall of water is invading the Assiniboine River valley, flooding thousands of acres of farmland and leaving producers in the area to question why more wasn't done to prevent the devastation.

"We're totally flooded out, virtually every acre is lost in the Assiniboine valley from the Shellmouth Dam right to Virden, and Oak Lake is going under as we speak," said Keith Pearn, who estimates he's lost close to 2,000 acres of seeded farmland. "It's just a mess."

For some farmers in the valley, it will be the third consecutive year without getting a crop.

"It's a devastating feeling to watch your crop go underwater," Pearn said. "We've spent all the money -- sowed the crops, put all the inputs in, sprayed them -- and it's just devastating. I'm not sure how else I can describe it."

Since heavy rains in Saskatchewan and Manitoba combined with a high water table from last year's flood to create the perfect storm for flooding, Pearn wonders why more water wasn't released from the Shellmouth Dam earlier this spring to minimize the flooding.

"The government doesn't want to talk about the flooding because in March, they thought there was going to be a drought, so they closed the Shellmouth Dam down," Pearn said.

The fact the dam was closed and the reservoir was full meant the province's ability to minimize flooding from heavy rains was nullified, according to Stan Cochrane, chairman of the Assiniboine Valley Producers.

"(The government) panicked and filled the dam up and by the time it started raining, there was no capacity for flood control," Cochrane said.

Of the 50,000 acres of farmland in the valley from the Shellmouth Dam to Brandon, Cochrane estimated at least 40,000 acres will be affected by overland flooding. He's had to watch 700 acres of his own farmland be swallowed up by water, and can't understand why the province didn't act sooner.

"We requested that they let some water go two or three times," said Cochrane, who also sits on the Shellmouth Reservoir Regulation Liaison Committee, which has input into the province's water flow at the Shellmouth Dam.

In April, the water level in the reservoir was sitting 10 feet higher than it was last year, according to Cochrane. That's when he asked the province to increase the flow to lessen the risk of flooding.

Last year, some farmers were compensated for land that went unseeded through a government program. This year, however, Cochrane said nearly all of the land in the valley was seeded, which means farmers will be left to carry the burden of cost for the flooded fields.

"It's a loss that comes straight out of the farmer's pocket," Cochrane said. "There is no compensation and we received nothing last year (for seeded acres lost)."

The area around the Shellmouth Dam has received more than double the average amount of rainfall over the last three months, a provincial spokesman said, and the dam isn't big enough take on the river flow and the heavy rainfall.

"Shellmouth has provided substantial flood protection downstream as inflows exceeded outflows," the spokesman said. "However, in these extreme periods of precipitation, the Shellmouth Dam reservoir does not have the capacity to provide full flood protection immediately downstream of the reservoir due to the limited channel capacity of the river."

"Due to the prevailing dry conditions, the Shellmouth liaison committee deemed it prudent to initiate operations to meet summer target level," the spokesman added.

Those operations would ultimately lead to the closing of the Shellmouth Dam, something Cochrane said he never agreed to.

"The Assiniboine Valley respresentatives were never OK with them closing the dam," Cochrane said.


-- Brandon Sun

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2012 A9


Updated on Friday, July 6, 2012 at 7:42 PM CDT: Corrects typo

8:00 PM: Removes extra characters

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