Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Haunted by 'decades of negligence'

Residents' pleas for better drainage, more dams have fallen on deaf ears over the years

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SHELLMOUTH -- Manitobans who live alongside the Assiniboine River's upper reaches are akin to Greek mythology's most tragic figure: Cassandra, who was blessed with the power of foresight but cursed with the fate of being ignored.

For decades, residents of the rural municipalities of Shellmouth-Boulton and Ellice, four hours northwest of Winnipeg, have been pleading with the province to pay more attention to drainage issues across the Assiniboine watershed, which stretches hundreds of kilometres into Saskatchewan.

They've asked for more dams along the upper Assiniboine to reduce the risk of flooding. They've called for a crackdown on illegal drains that increase river flows during spring floods and summer rains.

They've also begged Manitoba Water Stewardship to reach an agreement with its Saskatchewan counterpart to co-operatively manage all the water that drains into this province along the Qu'Appelle, Assiniboine, and other inter-provincial rivers.

They have largely been ignored.

And at least one of them claims that precipitation alone is not responsible for Brandon's record river levels and the intentional flooding of municipalities southeast of Portage la Prairie.

"What we're seeing now in Brandon and Portage is the cumulative effect of all the rivers out of control. This is the result of decades of negligence on the part of all governments, at all levels, in all jurisdictions, who mismanaged the watershed," said Gene Nerbas, a cattle farmer who lives and works immediately below the Shellmouth Dam and Reservoir.

Nerbas has an axe to grind: 1,100 of his 5,000 acres are flooded this year, just as they have been every year the Assiniboine River spills over the lip of the Shellmouth Reservoir after the artificial lake's capacity is exceeded.

But he's just as hard on fellow agricultural producers as he is on government. Nerbas believes the drainage of prairie potholes, which have the demonstrated capacity to store water during both floods and droughts, is a contributor to the unusual flows on the Assiniboine this spring.

"Farmers drain wetlands because they say they're feeding the hungry world. But they never think of the hungry world when they're draining the land. They're thinking about dollars," he said.

Agricultural producers, however, have been forced to drain their lands in order to become as productive as possible and avoid financial ruin. While conservationists urge them to preserve wetlands, governments and financial institutions encourage them to cut more drains.

"This ping-pong game has been bouncing back and forth for the past 10 years, if not longer," said Len Derkach, the retiring Tory MLA for Russell and one of the biggest proponents of more interprovincial co-operation on drainage.

"I can't blame the producers for draining the water. They didn't get a crop in last year. But there has to be a water-management plan," he said.

On Friday, Derkach and Shellmouth-Boulton Reeve Alvin Zimmer chartered a flight over eastern Saskatchewan to get a firsthand look at recent drains on agricultural lands as well as the new second outlet at Fishing Lake.

But a moratorium on Saskatchewan drainage cuts won't alleviate Assiniboine flooding in Manitoba.

Derkach would also like to see more small dams along the upper Assiniboine and one large dam built on the Shell River, as Duff Roblin originally intended when the late premier devised Manitoba's flood-protection plan.

More dams would all but eliminate the threat of flooding at St. Lazare, which sits at the confluence of the Qu'Appelle and Assiniboine Rivers, said Richard Fouillard, the chief administrator for the R.M. of Ellice.

He would also like to see Manitoba Water Stewardship reinstate an office along the upper Assiniboine to allow provincial officials to make firsthand observations of the region where most of the Assiniboine's flow materializes. Derkach has been lobbying for such a presence since the 1980s.

"They should have somebody closer," Fouillard said. "You can't make decisions about raising dikes at St. Lazare from Winnipeg."

Fouillard, Zimmer, and Derkach all praised Water Stewardship for its work during the current flood, noting the province is doing the best it can under exceptional circumstances.

But after so many years of unsuccessful lobbying, Nerbas is less charitable about the flood fight.

"We're doing crisis management instead of emergency management," he said. "Water is a gift that should be respected."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2011 A7

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