Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Flood of woes for farmers

Drainage issues taking centre stage

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You can read all the government releases and briefing documents you like, but if you really want to get a feeling for why Manitoba needs a new "surface-water management" strategy, spend an hour with Art Jonasson.

Or for that matter, talk to any of his neighbours who live and work along the shores of Lake Manitoba -- a cluster of people who continue to struggle with the after-effects of last year's Assiniboine River flood.

Jonasson told his family's story to the recent Canadian Farm Writers Federation annual meeting, themed Mud, Floods and Suds, in recognition of this province's watery history and, of course, the beverage of choice when reporters gather.

Even 18 months after the fact, it seemed like it was yesterday when Jonasson described the personal and financial chaos as provincial flood managers gave up trying to control the flood and focused on protecting major population centres. "I don't think people realize what it takes to move a herd of calving cows," Jonasson said of the call that came to evacuate -- immediately.

Among the talk about leaky ditches, there were a few hard-core journalists mopping something that looked a lot like tears from their eyes by the time he was finished.

Under the circumstances, Jonasson isn't blaming the province for flooding him out. "I understand exactly why they did what they had to do," he says of the decision to artificially divert more water into Lake Manitoba to avoid catastrophic flooding downstream. He is less forgiving of the response since.

The feeling among these folks is they don't matter enough, and they don't cost enough, for government to offer them any sort of long-term flood protection. It is particularly galling to know they live in a region that is not historically flood prone, but has been sacrificed to save a city that some 19th-century idiots decided to build in the bottom of a flood plain.

Many would argue Jonasson was flooded by a series of unusual events, and there is no question the flooding the province experienced in 2011 was unlike anything we've seen in recent memory. But in the context of climate change and some of the drainage that's taken place over the past century, no one is sure anymore whether it's correct to call what happened last year unusual.

There is a growing recognition surface-water management, which is political-speak for drainage, is affecting both the flooding intensity as well as water quality in Manitoba.

Estimates vary, but at least some of Manitoba's water problems stem from the ongoing and largely uncontrolled drainage of wetlands across the Prairies. Wetland loss in the Red River Valley since the late 1800s is estimated at 90 per cent. Losses across the Prairies range from 40 to 70 per cent. The province launched a surface-water-management policy consultation last April as part of a number of initiatives analyzing how this province can better manage water quantity -- be that shortages or excess -- and water quality. A new strategy is due to be released in the spring of 2013.

It needs to be said we wouldn't have much for agriculture in this province without drainage. Until very recently, water management was synonymous with how to build bigger, better and more efficient ditches, ranging from Duff's Ditch right on down to field drains on individual farms. On the surface, attitudes are changing. But they have a long way to go. Whatever emerges by way of policy is bound to be divisive.

Even though there are now regulations requiring farmers to obtain a licence to undertake drainage, there's widespread acknowledgment among farmers and municipal leaders enforcement is a joke. It's common for farmers speaking at public meetings to brag their personal policy is to drain now and ask forgiveness later.

"The big problem is enforcement is lacking," Souris-area producer and farm leader Walter Finlay told the farm writers. Farmers commonly say they are just 'cleaning out' a ditch. But, "I've seen situations where you couldn't see the top of the exhaust pipe on a four-wheel-drive tractor."

One model being explored by University of Manitoba researchers would see farmers responsible for retaining their surface-water run-off on each farm. With climate-change models predicting more extreme water events but less water overall in this region, that's an idea worth exploring. There is no way that system would have prevented last year's flood, but it could have reduced it.

Jonasson has his own ideas, but ultimately he wants one lasting change to come from his ordeal. "Make sure it doesn't happen again, so we can heal."


Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2012 B8

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