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Farmers furious as NDP drags heels on flood claims

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Western Manitoba farmers artificially flooded in 2011 due to the operation of the Shellmouth reservoir have yet to hear from the Selinger government on when they will receive compensation.

The farmers allege the government knew early on that they were negatively affected by the dam's operation, although it didn't admit to it until this past November. At that time, the government also acknowledged that landowners were artificially flooded in 2012.

But since that admission -- which came in the form of a press release two months ago -- Assiniboine River Valley farmers and ranchers haven't heard a peep about what compensation they can expect and when.

That's despite a law proclaimed in February 2011 designed specifically to address their concerns.

"I find it shameful the way the government has treated the Assiniboine (Valley) people," said Gene Nerbas, who lives next to the reservoir and claims its operation has long damaged his property.

"It's totally unacceptable," said Cliff Trinder, who owns 31 kilometres of Assiniboine River frontage southwest of Russell. In 2011, he was unable to grow livestock feed on a single acre of his land.

After decades of lobbying by farmers and ranchers downstream of the Shellmouth, the then-Doer government introduced legislation in 2008 to establish compensation for those suffering property damage and losses due to the dam's operation. The Shellmouth Dam and Other Water Control Works Management and Compensation Act was passed but not enacted until early 2011.

Then came the largest flood in centuries along the Assiniboine River. For some landowners downstream of the dam -- completed in 1972 to reduce the risk of flooding along the river and in Winnipeg -- flooding was prolonged because of its operation.

In 2012, flooding occurred in summer -- when crops were already in bloom -- because of heavy rains to the west. Farmers say provincial officials, fearing a drought that year, failed to drain the reservoir sufficiently, then it filled to overflowing, spoiling a promising harvest.

Under the law, the government must prepare a report on the extent of artificial flooding caused by the dam either within three months after the flood has ended or from the time the minister responsible declares that artificial flooding has occurred -- whichever is later. Steve Ashton, minister responsible for Infrastructure and Transportation, issued the statement declaring artificial flooding had occurred on Nov. 16.

Reached late Monday, Ashton said the report would be completed within the prescribed time.

He could not estimate how many farmers might qualify for compensation, saying that will have to wait until the report is completed. He said he hoped money could be in farmers' hands before spring.

Officials say determining the extent of flooding due to the dam is a time-consuming task. They've had to construct models showing the timing and duration of flooding that occurred as a result of the dam, and to show what would have happened if the dam did not exist.

However, Tory Conservation and Water Stewardship critic Larry Maguire (Arthur-Virden) said it is "bizarre" the law allowed the government to drag its feet for close to two years before even issuing a report. "The Act is designed to not pay anything out," he said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 A13

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