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Invasion of the Shoal Lakes

Overflowing bodies of water swallow up agricultural land

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On the map, the Shoal Lakes are a trio of watery marshlands sandwiched between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba in the Interlake.

But the locals have taken to calling the region Manitoba's own Devils Lake, in reference to the infamous overflowing body of water in North Dakota that -- for lack of a drain -- is inundating surrounding areas.

A similar disaster has been quietly unfolding over the past decade just an hour or so north of Winnipeg. The Shoal Lakes basin has gradually begun to fill after years of higher-than-average precipitation levels.

What used to be three lakes, West, North and South Shoal Lake, have merged into one and started to spread over the lowlands in surrounding areas, consuming deeded and Crown lands along their shores, isolating others, and even creeping up into people's back yards.

This is cattle country. The lost pastures and haylands are creating feed shortages that are forcing producers to move and even downsize their herds.

According to a 2005 study, 117 landowners have lost an estimated 42,500 hectares of land.

Provincial officials added another four landowners and 885 hectares to that estimate in 2010.

Last June, two major thoroughfares through the region, Provincial Roads 415 and 518, were closed after sections were flooded with up to 50 centimetres of water.

This is more than inconvenient. Their closing has isolated families from their jobs and emergency services; it has forced some to find lodging in area towns during the school week so their children can attend school.

What's more, it will cost an estimated $6 million to repair them, only if and when the water recedes.

Crews have spent an additional $200,000 fighting what appears to be a losing battle to keep a third road, Provincial Road 229, open through the area.

If it goes under too, the Interlake will essentially be split into two -- which will have a major effect on the region's population and commerce.

Area residents and their municipalities understandably want the government to do something.

Well, it did. A study, which took five years to complete, was commissioned to examine three options: draining the area either to the west or south, creating water-retention areas to keep more water from draining into the lakes, or buying out the affected landowners and giving the area back to the birds and snakes.

The 350 residents that packed into the Woodlands Community Hall on Sept. 29 to hear the results of that study were told it would be cheaper for governments to buy them out than come to their rescue with drainage.

Even if governments were prepared to pay the estimated $23 to $32 million to install drainage, the project would face massive opposition from downstream recipients -- a scenario that resonates with Manitoba's opposition to attempts to drain Devils Lake.

Besides, drainage could have a negative affect on waterfowl habitat and the area is recognized nationally as an important staging area for birds.

Meanwhile, the region affected is Class 5 to 7 agricultural land, which places it at the bottom of the productivity scale.

A buyout package, based on the assessed value of the property plus a 20 per cent premium, would cost less than $12 million.

It's a lot of nerve to suggest land has little agricultural value when you are talking to people who have farmed it for three generations. Carefully managed, those Class 5 to 7 lands have proven invaluable, allowing ranchers to build successful enterprises using low-input management, a system that is gaining appeal as the world runs short of resources.

That said, in a province in which flooding has been either an annual risk or reality over the past 15 years, there is the niggling question of the government's obligation as well as its capacity to respond.

The Red River has had double the annual flows over the past 15 years than in the previous three to four decades.

Vast sections of the Canadian Prairies, more noted for drought than drowning, were left unseeded this past spring due to excess moisture.

If the experts monitoring our climate are correct, we will start to see, and perhaps we already are experiencing, profound changes in the environment in which we live and work. Can society afford to compensate all those affected? And should it?

The people who will be on the front lines of those changes are those whose lives are intertwined with the natural environment, and that includes our farmers and rural communities.

One left the meeting in Woodlands with a sense that this is just a taste of the kinds of divisive pressure climate change will create.


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 9, 2010 B4

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